WHEELING, W.Va. (WTRF) — Parents treating their own children as commodities in exchange for food.

Landlords using sex as payment for rent.

Human trafficking is an everyday, evil transaction, and it’s what the lives of too many people look like in the Ohio Valley.

And yet the inhumanity goes undetected…because its victims don’t know what it is.

“When we meet with potential clients that question is asked, ‘Have you been human trafficked?’ 99.9% of the time they’re going to say no because they don’t understand the definition of human trafficking.”

Heather Lapp, Chief Strategic Officer, YWCA Wheeling

So let’s clear it up now.

The Department of Justice defines it as forcing another person to provide labor or a service, or to engage in sexual acts.

Its effects have been seen by a small and dedicated web of local advocates, who have decided the abuse stops with them.

The Sexual Assault Help Center is one of West Virginia’s 24-7 rape crisis centers—and focus on making sure we know the signs and the horrors of sexual violence.

Executive Director Ashley Carpenter says the tragedy of poverty provides the motivation for the tragedy of human trafficking.

“Resources for the basic necessities, food, clothing, shelter are very hard to come by. And if we don’t have monetary support in that way, we have to exchange something right?”

Ashley Carpenter, Executive Director, Sexual Assault Help Center

And just across Chapline Street—
The YWCA has provided those same survivors shelter, employment help and even assistance with child care for over a century.

Chief Strategic Officer Heather Lapp says the movies portray traffickers as strangers—when it’s more often a slow buildup from a trusted friend.

“You should always be leery of your surroundings, but traffickers don’t generally just kidnap off of our streets. They tend to groom them and isolate them and have them be by themselves.”

Heather Lapp, Chief Strategic Officer, YWCA Wheeling

Even outside of the trained professionals—The Valley wants to know what’s happening behind closed doors and blinds.

I.G.N.I.T.E. H.O.P.E. is the nerve center for the Ohio Valley’s anti-trafficking operation, connecting the hurting with the hands that want to heal.

There’s no special training or licensing involved—just people who believe God’s children are not for sale.

“The momentum’s happening. The Sound of Freedom movie got the momentum going. It truly did. That’s how I got involved. We saw the movie and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know.'”

Stacey Gilson, I.G.N.I.T.E. H.O.P.E. group leader

Carpenter says recovering from trauma is like trying to repair a shattered glass.

Even if you can find all the shards, they won’t just slot back into place.

“How many puzzles have you been able to put together, just looking at the pieces and going, okay, and just put it together? It takes a long time to look at those pieces and figure out where it goes in your story.”

Ashley Carpenter, Executive Director, Sexual Assault Help Center

Those pieces may be scattered all across both sides of the river.

But as long as we lift up those who are bowed down —the Ohio Valley will never be broken.

All three of the groups in this story are combining for their first charity event just for the trafficked in our area.

I.G.N.I.T.E. H.O.P.E.’s Facebook page will show you how you can help protect the dignity of your friends and neighbors.