OKLAHOMA CITY — It's been nearly 30 years, but Mark Brown still remembers the face of the teenage girl who approached him at a truck stop in California.
He'd just finished a long day of driving across the country when the girl, who wasn't more than 15 or 16 years old, knocked on his window and asked if he wanted a date.
He said he ignored her and let her proceed down the row of trucks, knocking on windows trying to sell her body for money.
"I still regret that decision to this day," he said. "I should have helped her."
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Brown now uses his position as assistant director of Driving Instruction at Central Tech in Drumright to teach new drivers about what they can do combat the industry's hidden secret. He passes out wallet cards with tips and information to students and is going to distribute a training video to other schools across the country about human trafficking.
And it's all because of a partnership with Truckers Against Trafficking, an initiative that hopes to educate and raise awareness about domestic sex trafficking along the nation's highways. The program by the anti-human trafficking organization Chapter 61 Ministries specifically targets young girls and boys who it says are transported across the country to prostitute at truck stops and plazas.
Lyn Thompson, who started Chapter 61 Ministries in 2007 with her four daughters and a family friend, said she developed the idea for Truckers Against Trafficking after learning the important role gas station attendants play in identifying victims of human trafficking.
Taking it one step further, she began focusing on truck drivers.
"Traffickers have to transport their victims, whether by plane, train, ship, bus, car or truck," said Thompson, a Tulsa resident who acts as a national coordinator for the initiative. "So, all the transportation industries are first-line defenders against this crime."
The girls and boys who work the trucks stops and plazas are called "lot lizards," said Kendis Paris, a national coordinator for TAT based in Denver.
She said the group is focusing on kids under the age of 18 because by law, they are victims of human trafficking if forced into the sex trade.
"I honestly don't think anybody wakes up and says, 'I want to sell my body,' but the kids really have no choice," she said, adding that many are runaways who have been coerced into prostitution.
By attending trucking industry events and meetings, Paris hopes to get the wallet cards in to the hands of every trucker in America. Trucker drivers can call a hotline number listed to report a crime or ask questions if they are unsure something illegal is taking place.
"The issue is difficult to police or get control of, so that's why TAT's effort is so important, because we feel like if we can educate the professional truck driver, nine out of 10 of them are going to want to get these people arrested who are doing this stuff," said truck stop plaza owner Sam Smith, who has hung up TAT posters and distributed wallet cards to drivers at his Nashville, Tenn., store.
Dorothy Cox of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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