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Events on human trafficking cast spotlight on problems in Rochester

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Sister Anne Walch did what she had to on Friday -- ruin people's lunches.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Walch talked with people waiting to order food and sat down with others while they ate at University Square to open their eyes to the fact that human trafficking is happening here.

Since 2011, the Sisters of Saint Francis at Assisi Heights have taken up the fight against human trafficking, taking people against their will to be sold and enslaved for sexual exploitation or forced labor, as part of their mission to act courageously on issues of oppression and marginalization of women and children.

"People think this happens outside of the U.S., but it happens more in the United States than anywhere else," Walch said.

The FBI ranks Minnesota as the nation's 13th largest center for human trafficking, she said, noting the average age of entry into the U.S. sex industry is 13.

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Among its efforts, the group is co-sponsoring several events to coincide with Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January.

To set the stage for panel discussions with local leaders and law enforcement about the issue, two survivors of human trafficking will travel from Washington, D.C., to give presentations in Rochester.

Stacy Jewell Lewis will give a spoken word performance, "10 Years and 1 Day," about her experience being forced at gunpoint into prostitution on Friday. She will be joined by Shamere McKenzie , who also was forced into prostitution, for two additional presentations on Saturday.

This is part of a three- to four-year plan, not a one time event, Walch said.

The sisters also are working with Breaking Free , a Twin Cities nonprofit serving women and girls who have been involved in prostitution, and have a formal partnership with Mission 21 , a Rochester organization that serves child victims in Minnesota.

Other efforts by the Sisters of St. Francis include teaching hotel staff what to look for and what questions to ask to stop trafficking there and reaching out to service organizations and faith communities to get involved.

"I think we are on the right track," Walch said.

So does Stephanie Holt, of Mission 21.

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Last year, Mission 21 reached close to 4,000 people through awareness classes and events, she said. But with the help of the sisters who use the same curriculum, that number is just about double, she said.

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