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UCOP’s Barbara Jim-George ministers to at-risk teens

The Rev. Barbara Jim-George is on a mission to stop a parasitic trend in her Oakland community.

Vulnerable teens are being lured into a life of human trafficking and prostitution, and she wants them to recognize the danger so they can avoid the trap and understand they are worth more than what predators might think.

“We cannot continue to put our heads in the sand,” Jim-George said. “We have a responsibility, an obligation.”

Her work gained her recognition and a UCOP Innovation and Impact Award, given for the first time this January, in the “Connecting with the Community” category, which awards individual volunteer effort or active service in a nonprofit community-based organization resulting in a meaningful impact on the local community or its residents.

Jim-George feels the work is her calling. An administrative assistant in UCOP’s Business Resource Center since 2000, she is also an ordained minister who made finding a faith-based approach to stopping human trafficking the subject of her thesis for her Master in Divinity degree and the focus of her research as a doctoral candidate at American Baptist Seminary of the West.

In 2009, she launched the Girls Rite of Passage Program at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland for girls ages 11 to 16. The nine-course program spanning five months uses documentaries, guest speakers, skits and group discussions to teach girls about the dangers of human trafficking, and to empower them with a strong sense of self and the ability to make responsible decisions.

While government agencies and nonprofit groups help victims recover, Jim-George believes the faith community should provide prevention programs to stop girls from ever becoming victims.

“It is modern day slavery. Our program is designed to mitigate their risk of getting caught in human trafficking,” Jim-George said. Human trafficking is a lucrative $9 billion global industry, the fastest-growing organized crime in the world, according to the FBI.

Sexual exploitation and prostitution are the most common form, followed by forced labor. Victims are frequently snatched by predators or lured by attention, compliments, presents and promises of a better life that never materialize. They frequently work for little or no pay, are beaten or raped, and threatened with deportation or harm to them or their families.

About 2.5 million people are trafficked internationally each year, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Of those, the FBI estimates 15,000 to 18,000 are in the United States.

The average age of a girl caught in trafficking is 12 years old, Jim-George said; some are as young as 9.

Jim-George is reaching out to teenage girls who are most at-risk: young girls growing up in single-parent and/or low-income households living in cities where criminal behavior and violence have become part of the fabric of the community.

Her program is just in its infancy, drawing a dozen or so students primarily through word of mouth.

Jim-George has noticed changes in the girls that participate: a shy girl who could not make eye contact with anyone until she gained confidence through the program is now performing better at school. Another girl, a repeat runaway, returned home under Jim-George’s advice.

Girls Rite of Passage is admittedly small now, but Jim-George envisions an expanded curriculum with workshops and field trips. A component geared toward boys could be added in the future.

It operates on a shoestring budget financed through Jim-George’s limited pocketbook and the help of parents who take turns supplying snacks. Local ministries have pitched in to supply food for an end-of-the-year celebration.

She hopes to eventually find a grant writer who can secure consistent funding to grow the program.

“I hope organizations will identify kids at risk and refer them to us so we can help,” she said. “I’d like to expand the number of participants and the workshops to create a comprehensive umbrella under which the girls can see a better outlook for their lives, that they are worthy of making plans for what they want to do.”

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