Unbound Now nonprofit combats human trafficking, uplifts survivors

By Clara Snyder | Reporter

The $150 billion human trafficking industry is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world — and Texas accounts for the second-highest number of human trafficking cases nationally.

Founded 12 years ago to combat human trafficking in Waco, Unbound Now has become a global nonprofit organization. Unbound executive director Kristi Hayes said it started with a small local church group that refused to let the issue go unnoticed in the community.

After witnessing the dark realities of human trafficking while abroad with her church, Unbound founder and Baylor alumna Susan Peters returned to Waco with a newly ignited passion to address the issue. Peters said she realized the crime wasn’t just taking place abroad; it was happening in her community.

Today, Unbound serves survivors and communities beyond the city of Waco. Unbound director of communications Abigail Sigal said it now has 11 distinct service areas in the U.S., Mongolia, Indonesia and Europe.

Through outreach, training, youth prevention and survivor services, Unbound strives to prevent human trafficking from ever occurring while aiding its victims.

“Traffickers go after vulnerabilities in people and seek to meet those vulnerabilities so that victims become dependent on them for everything,” Sigal said. “If we can go into those same places and reach youth that we know are vulnerable for trafficking, we can empower them to stay safe before it ever happens.”

Sigal said part of the reason Texas has such high numbers of trafficking has to do with its position within the U.S. and the Texas triangle. The Texas triangle refers to the interconnectivity of the three major highways that bring together Austin, Dallas and Houston.

“We know that victims are transported across these major areas every day, and we know that there are a lot of things that cause an increase in demand for trafficking in those metropolitan areas,” Sigal said.

Hayes said the business of human trafficking, like any other business, relies on supply and demand. However, the difference is that human trafficking isn’t just a one-time sale, and when a variety of factors drive up demand in certain areas, the highways connecting major cities allow for victims to be transported to them.

Among the factors increasing demand is technology, which provides a platform for online sexual exploitation.

“Now, it’s not just a victim who is being abused in one room; it can be projected online for people to watch,” Sigal said. “Now, there is an increased demand for that kind of violence and sexual exploitation.”

Hayes said educating parents and individuals close to potential victims on the prevalence of this exploitation is a big part of the work Unbound does to prevent human trafficking from occurring, because it can happen to anyone.

“Trafficking is not discriminatory,” Hayes said. “Yes, traffickers pray on vulnerabilities, but think of any kid who’s 13 years old in that wonky space of junior high and now has someone who’s paying attention to them online.”

Hayes said many people have the misconception that human trafficking is confined to kidnappings or is only taking place overseas, but that isn’t the case.

“I would love for everyone to know it’s happening in your backyard,” Hayes said. “These are our kids. This is our community. And it’s our responsibility to have our eyes wide open. Pay attention to those around you, to people’s pain, to what might look off. And if you see something off, do something about it.”

Sigal said she believes Texas is leading the way in the fight against human trafficking through its innovative programs, the support of the governor’s office and its community mobilization. Through Unbound’s outreach and training, groups of law enforcement, educators, health care providers and more have been brought together to collaborate on tackling the issue.

“Through that model, we’re seeing gaps in community close as these different groups come together to talk about the issue,” Sigal said. “We’re trying to close those gaps so that men, women and children don’t fall through them anymore.”

The impact of Unbound’s work can be seen on an individual level through its advocacy program. Sigal said the hope for a better tomorrow is reignited in the hearts of victims.

“We see survivors get to be back behind the steering wheel of their own lives and to rebuild what they want their lives to be in complete freedom,” Sigal said. “It’s the most inspiring thing to bear witness to.”

Unbound Now has volunteer opportunities such as Not My City as well as prevention and training teams that are open to all students. More information about getting involved can be found on its website.