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Prescott non-profit raising funds and awareness for human trafficking victims

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Organizers and volunteers from Beacon Bags, a charity based in Prescott that is dedicated to providing comfort and assistance to women and girls who have been victims of human trafficking, show off the shirts and masks that participants will wear.

PRESCOTT - Human trafficking is not something most people in Leeds and Grenville think much about, but a Prescott-based charity hopes to make the public more aware of the dangers and extent of human trafficking in this region.

Beacon Bags helps provide comfort to women and girls who have been rescued from the trap of human trafficking and works to raise awareness of the problem. One of the ways it does this is by holding an annual Walk for Freedom, and this year's walk will take place in Prescott on Saturday, October 17.

Of course, the pandemic has required some changes be made. Apart from the annual Walk for Freedom, Beacon Bags usually hosts another indoor fundraiser during each year, but an indoor fundraiser was not possible this time around. It was decided then that the walk would be combined this year with a new, outdoor fundraiser.

Planning for both events has been done in close consultation with town hall and the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit, and organizers are carefully following the advice and recommendations of government authorities.

The Walk for Freedom will be combined this year with an outdoor vendors market, and they will be taking place at two different locations on the same day. Registration for the walk will take place at Seaway Christian Church at 349 Churchill Road, which is where the walk will begin and end as well, while the vendors market will be set up just down the road in the parking lot south of Giant Tiger.

The vendor will open for business at 8:00 a.m. and the walkers will be on the move starting at about 8:30 a.m. Unlike previous years, though, the walkers will not be out on the route en masse. Small groups, or bubbles of friends, family members or co-workers, will be dispatched onto the route at ten-minute intervals, which will not only help keep people safe, but it may also make the Walk for Freedom more visible.

"Then we're not all walking together, and it spreads us out a little more, and people will see all these little groups of people walking around with their black masks on with the red 'x' on them," says Denise March, the founder of Beacon Bags.

The red 'x' on a black background is the logo for the movement to end human trafficking, and for the $30 registration fee, everyone who participates in the walk will receive a Walk for Freedom shirt and black medical mask adorned with the logo.

March has also issued a challenge to walk participants, promising to wear a pair of particularly sparkly red high heels for at least one kilometre of the five-kilometre walk route for every $1,000 raised in sponsorships by those taking part in the Walk for Freedom.

The route this year is the same as previous installments, starting at Seaway Christian Church, heading east on Churchill Road, south on Boundary to King Street, part way down King Street West and then back to Edward Street and back up to Churchill.

The second part of the event will feature an array of talented artisans and craftspeople selling their unique creations at booths set up at the outdoor market. Everything from candles and clothing to decor items and foodstuffs will be for sale, and March had no problem finding vendors to take part in the market once she put up the request for applications last Thursday.

"I had to take it back down on Friday morning, because I got an overwhelming response," she says, positing that because so many markets and indoor events have been canceled, this area's talented creators haven't had many opportunities to showcase their creations.

In the event the walk and the market are both canceled, says March, both will be moved online, with walkers encouraged to walk at home or around their neighbourhood and each participating vendor being given a 15-minute special feature on the event's livestream to showcase their products.

The outdoor market will also feature a silent auction, and Beacon Bags will also have a booth set up to sell promotional items that help to raise awareness of human trafficking. All the money raised from the silent auction, the Beacon Bags booth and vendor registration, as well all the money raised by the walkers through either registrations or sponsorships, will be put towards Beacon Bags' efforts to assist and provide comfort to female victims of human trafficking. The money made from sales of items at the vendors' booths, though, belongs to the vendors, to support them and their work.

It was in 2017 that March founded Beacon Bags, which sought to offer some measure of comfort to women and girls who have been a victim of human trafficking in some way. A beacon bag is just that, a bag filled with essential items that a victim might need after having been snatched by authorities out of the clutches of those who traffic in human beings, often with nothing but the clothes on their back.

"They're pretty full," says March. "We just put as much stuff in there as we can."

The bags contain everything from toothbrushes and cozy clothing items to notepads and gum, and March was insistent from the beginning that the bags themselves be of good quality. The bags are all zipper pouches featuring pretty patterns and sourced from the well-known retailer Thirty-One.

"We just want to make sure those girls know somebody cares about them," says March.

The bags are provided to area police departments and to Victim Services of Leeds and Grenville, (VSLG) for distribution to those in need. The VSLG recently formed a coalition to help fight human trafficking in this region. March and Beacon Bags is part of that coalition, and the Freedom Walk in 2019 actually raised money specifically in support of Victim Services of Leeds and Grenville and the work they do.

Previous walks have also raised money for the beacon bags themselves, though March has also received many generous donations of money and items from individuals, local service organizations and area churches.

"It's been wonderful. People have been very supportive," she says.

In fact, March has a sufficient supply of beacon bags and the material to go in them that the upcoming edition of the Walk for Freedom, as well as any money raised from the market, will be put towards another big project March has in mind.

"My goal is to open a home, an emergency home, so they can bring someone to us and it would be a safe place for her to spend however long it takes to get the resources she needs," says March.

Safe houses of this sort exist in other regions, and March says there is definitely a need of one in the United Counties.

She says people wouldn't think human trafficking happens in Leeds and Grenville, or even in Canada, but she says it does. While her focus is strictly on women and girls, March notes that boys and men are also victims, and that human trafficking can take the form of sexual exploitation or even forced labour. The trafficker will normally identify some susceptibility in a potential victim, earn his or her trust, lure the victim into a vulnerable position and then manipulate or threaten her or him into obedience.

March says that one particular form of human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children, is particularly common and is also in evidence in this region. When these women and girls are rescued, however, from their victimization, quite often they lack the resources to avoid falling back into the same vulnerable position that first led them into the orbit of the trafficker, which is why March thinks a safe house would be an invaluable addition to the fight and why much of Beacon Bags' fundraising efforts will go towards that project.

"Any money that is coming in now is going towards opening that home," she says.

Beacon Bags is also pursuing registered charity status with the Canada Revenue Agency and is hoping eventually to begin approaching major donors for help in financing a safe house. In this and all her efforts, March has a great deal of help and she is quick to credit those she works with for setting her sights even higher.

"I have a great board of directors and a fantastic committee," she says. "I have a great group of people who work with me."

Anybody interested in taking part in the Walk for Freedom or any business or organization that would like to sponsor the event is eagerly invited to contact March at any time for more information. She can be reached at 613-213-2859. The Walk for Freedom also has a Facebook page and Instagram account which will be updated regularly.

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