Catholic News Service photo
A woman's hands are pictured in this photo illustration depicting the effects of human trafficking. Women religious are joining with members of local communities in efforts to to combat exploitation of young girls being trafficked and "to help heal the wounded."
Catholic News Service photo
A woman's hands are pictured in this photo illustration depicting the effects of human trafficking. Women religious are joining with members of local communities in efforts to to combat exploitation of young girls being trafficked and "to help heal the wounded."
ST. LOUIS — At 15 years old, she lived in a loving household, home-schooled by her family. Young and curious, she decided to study abroad.

With her parents, she did some research and found a program. When she arrived at her destination, she quickly discovered she had been lured into a sex trafficking ring. Her father eventually flew overseas to rescue her.

Sex trafficking remains a scary reality, overseas and domestically. In the United States, sex trafficking is big business, generating an estimated $9.5 billion a year, according to the United Nations.

In the Catholic Church, women religious have come to the forefront in the efforts to stop trafficking and bring healing to victims.

Sister Gladys Leigh is among them. A Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 42 years, Sister Gladys has spent much time working with the poor and oppressed in her native Peru. When she moved to St. Louis 20 years ago, she worked as a doula and a massage therapist.

Now she's transitioning into a new phase of her life as "Grandma Laly," a volunteer grandmother figure for the Covering House in St. Louis, a new St. Louis-based organization that provides refuge and healing for girls who have become victims of sex trafficking.

Sister Gladys has been preparing for her role since she learned about the issue of sex trafficking when she and 900 Sisters of St. Joseph met in St. Louis for the community's U.S. federation meeting in 2011.

Being from Peru, "I thought it only happened in poor countries," she told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper. "But it's happening here immensely. I thought, 'That's the kind of ministry I am called to do.'"

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in this country, and the average age of a child victim entering prostitution is13 to 14. However, sex trafficking does not discriminate against age -- young girls, teens, adult women and even some males are among the many faces of trafficking victims -- and statistics can be difficult to compile, given the complexity of the situation, victim advocates have said.

St. Louis has become a prime area for sex trafficking, primarily because of the growing online marketplace for the sex trade as well as easy access to interstate highways and its position as a hub for large-scale conventions and sporting activities.

The Department of Justice has identified St. Louis among the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions in the country.

Anna Sandidge, justice coordinator with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, explained that religious communities, many of whom have spent their lives working with vulnerable and marginalized people, seek to have a role in community outreach efforts to stop trafficking and to restore the human

dignity of those who have become victims.

For the Sisters of St. Joseph, the issue traces back to the sisters' founding charism of "serving the dear neighbor without distinction," said Sandidge. "In the constitution of our founding we were charged by Father Jean Pierre Medaille to serve the women of the street. This really is an anchor to our founding."

As part of her job at Nix Conference and Meeting Management, Kimberly Ritter works with corporations, religious groups and other organizations to plan conferences.

The company contracts with hundreds of hotels every year to organize these conferences. In 2008, the Sisters of St. Joseph approached Ritter about organizing its U.S. federation meeting at the Millennium Hotel Downtown. That's when Ritter, a senior account manager, first learned more about sex trafficking.

She and the company's principals, Jane Quinn and Molly Hackett, had daughters who at the time were about 12 and 13, around the average age  for a child sex trafficking victim in the United States. Ritter learned how sex trafficking victims were likely being sold out of the very hotels that they often worked with in organizing conferences.

As mothers and professional businesswomen, "that was something we couldn't stand for," Ritter said.

Nix worked with the sisters to get the Millennium Hotel to sign the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism.

Developed by an international nongovernmental organization called End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking Children for Sexual Purposes, the code has been implemented by many tour operators, hotels, travel agents and others worldwide.

It calls participating companies to commit to establish an ethics policy regarding commercial exploitation of children, train personnel, introduce clauses in contracts with suppliers stating repudiation of commercial sexploitation and provide information to travelers and local "key persons" at destinations.

Ritter said Nix realized it could do the same with the hotels it works with. And the company's efforts took another twist -- as Ritter researched sex trafficking, she discovered that with her knowledge of the hotel industry, she could assist law enforcement in its efforts to rescue girls.

"We found that girls are sold on a page called -- it's kind of like Craigslist," said Ritter. "We would be able to look at these girls' photos and figure out what hotels they were being sold out of."

In 2013, the Nix company formed the Exchange Initiative to provide resources, information and networking opportunities to combat sex trafficking in the United States. As part of the effort, Ritter said, a website is being developed where the public can share photos of hotel rooms to assist law enforcement rescue victims of sex trafficking.

She said the Exchange Initiative was formed through the influence of women religious.

"These women have compassion and love for all human beings," she said.

Other religious communities involved in fighting trafficking include the Daughters of Charity; Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and the Incarnate Word Foundation, and the Sisters of Mercy and Mercy Investment Services.

"I am thankful they took this on as an issue -- it ended up being my calling in my life to work to fight this with them."