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CRAIG BLANKET DONATION OFFERS COMFORT FOR THOSE IN TRAUMA

In the violent world of human trafficking, comfort is a scarce commodity.

Though evident during the grooming process, all signs of concern for one’s well-being disappear after the predator traps his or her victim in a web of repression, sex and brutality. From there, a cycle of agony and isolation awaits those fortunate enough to survive.

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Knowing they can’t completely eliminate this worldwide scourge, a group of Craig High School seniors has taken up studying the cause and hopes to inject a bit of kindness into the lives of those overcoming trauma.

As part of a research project on human trafficking for their AP Government class, five seniors recently coordinated a drive to assemble fleece tie blankets for two local groups working directly with survivors: the YWCA CARE House and the “Blanket Buddies” program at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center.

Delivery of 90 handmade blankets took place this week.

(When we toured the CARE House), they said that they make their own blankets, that the staff makes them themselves,” said McKaylie Justman, one of the seniors involved in the project. “So we thought, ‘What better way to give back to our community than by making these blankets.’”

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To aid in production, the five seniors sought help from several clubs at Craig. The effort brought together 14 groups: LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), National Art Honor Society, National Honor Society, National Spanish Honor Society, National Chinese Honor Society, Leo Club, Spanish Club, Interact Club, Skills USA, Lion’s Club, CHS Softball, Sierra Club, Octagon Club and Link Crew.

Michelle Meier, a teacher at Craig, and her 6-year-old son, Cooper, also donated to the cause.

“There were a lot of people who just donated material, but we did get a ton of clubs involved to help spread out the blanket-making,” said Kiah Biddick, another senior involved in the project. “And there were a lot of guys and girls who you might not expect to do some of this stuff that came out, so that was super nice to see.”

Production time also provided an opportunity for the seniors to share what they have learned.

“While we were making the blankets, we did talk a little bit,” she added. “So we kind of educated other people about what’s going on – about little facts they might not have known about human trafficking.”

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Though it started as an assignment, the project later evolved into a mission for Justman, Biddick and classmates Madelyn Mayer, Caitlin Werner and Jessa Alderman. In addition to the blanket drive, the group researched human trafficking by conducting interviews with local experts, public officials, law enforcement personnel and workers in the medical field. Werner and Alderman recently traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of Craig’s Democracy in Action program to continue the group’s research.

This spring, the seniors will share their findings during presentations to students in the Janesville and Beloit school districts.

“I think this is the best thing about education,” said Carrie Wyatt, a Spanish teacher at Craig who helped guide the students toward resources for their project. “The best of the best young minds take a topic and want to do something so proactive and positive. This will impact their lives forever because it has really opened their eyes to something they will never see quite the same way again.”

Wyatt, who also is chairwoman for the Rock County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (RCAHTTF), admits trafficking is a difficult topic to discuss, but she stresses it’s not one to turn a blind eye toward.

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“It is happening in our communities with our youth from elementary through high school and beyond,” she said. “For the students to take this as something they might have thought was just an international issue and to know it’s happening right here at home, and for them to want to share their knowledge with other students – that directly impacts the community in a positive way.”

The students settled on human trafficking after Craig AP Government teacher Samantha Bannach charged them with finding a global issue to not only research but to also implement local change upon. They were surprised to discover how prevalent the issue is not just in the U.S. and beyond, but in Janesville and Rock County specifically.

“It made me realize human trafficking and sexual abuse with children in our community is a big problem,” Mayer said. “I had no idea until we started this project.”

Mayer said the local impact of trafficking became visible for her during the visit to CARE House, a child advocacy center on the city’s south side. Since 2000, the center has invited victims of neglect, physical or sexual abuse to place their handprints and first names on its walls and ceilings.

She found the sight overwhelming, and it resonated with her deeply.

“Seeing all of those handprints was heartbreaking,” Mayer said. “So is knowing it’s going on in our community and it’s not being talked about.”

Justman recalled the CARE House visit being cut short because a family in need was undergoing intake.

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“They needed help,” she said. “We got to see that whole process kind of go down, and it really stuck with me that I wanted to help these people.”

Jamie Counsell, a forensic nurse coordinator at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center, is founder of Mercy’s “Blanket Buddies” program and is a member of the RCAHTTF board with Wyatt. She has seen firsthand the difference something as simple as a soft blanket can make in a victim’s life.

“It gives people something to hang onto,” she said. “They can use them to cover their faces, or they can curl up with them. Sometimes they use them to wipe their faces if they’ve been crying.

“Every patient I see gets a blanket,” she added. “They’re surprised to get something, but they’re overwhelmed that someone else cared enough to make something for them to keep. Sometimes, depending on the situation, that’s the only thing that’s theirs.”

Counsell lauded the student effort at Craig.

“I think the best part of having kids do this is it helps them to understand, and it’s important for them to be aware of what’s happening in their community,” she said. “It’s a very small gesture to be kind to somebody, and this could change a victim’s outlook on their future.”

To learn more about human trafficking and indicators to watch for, view this video from RCAHTTF or visit the Polaris Project. If you are a victim in need of help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or visit humantraffickinghotline.org.

To make a donation to the YWCA Care House, visit ywcarockcounty.org. To contact Jamie Counsell about Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center’s “Blanket Buddies” program, email her at jcounsell@mhemail.org.

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