By K.D. Norris
Many college students live in a sort of societal cocoon, inside the walls of their schools and surrounded by their friends and classmates. Some are barely able to decide what classes they want to take each year, let alone their career path. They often change their majors multiple times as they progress through their late teens and early 20s.
Grace Bible College’s Kate Shellenbarger is not your ordinary college student. No less a witness than Wyoming Police Det./Lt. James Maguffee would testify to that fact.
Soon after she arrived at Grace, the soon-to-be junior at the Wyoming college ventured off campus and waded into the murky midst of a possible local example of the nationwide problem of human sex trafficking — and her determination to “do something” about it has brought her recognition from the City of Wyoming Department of Public Safety.
She also has decided that combatting the problem of human trafficking is the educational and career path she is driven to by her small-town upbringing, her Christian-based morals, and her ever-expanding world view.
Shellenbarger already had some knowledge of the human trafficking issue, from her high school, having been involved with the “One Dress, One Month” idea, where someone wears the same plain dress for a month to invite people to open a discussion on the issue. She brought the “One Dress” idea to her new college, but then she amped up her advocacy.
“I come from a small town in Ohio, so it was different there than it is here, in a big city, like Grand Rapids,” Shellenbarger said in an interview with WKTV. “When I came here, I had a friend who I talked with, talked to her about human trafficking. She was the one who saw something and told me and we said, ‘Lets look up and see what this particular business is.’ It looks kind of sketchy to me.”
It was a massage parlor that attracted their attention — a business that can often be legitimate and operated by law-abiding persons, but can also be the location of illegitimate but hard-to-prove criminal activities such as prostitution. And where there is prostitution there is often human trafficking.
“I got kind of mad,” Shellenbarger said. “I knew it was right down the road. I didn’t understand why it was happening right in front of my face — right here and right down the road. So I called the police. … I was hoping they were already doing something about it. That was my hope.”
Working with local authorities; not just complaining
It was then that she began her discussions with the City of Wyoming Department of Public Safety, specifically Maguffee.
This story “is a 20-something college student cold-calling the police department and waiting until she got to the right extension to talk to somebody — there is patience involved even with that,” Maguffee said. “Really, it is just a willingness to call and have a discussion with your local law enforcement about your concerns, and see where that conversation goes. In this case, … [Shellenbarger] and I talked and we had mutual concerns, things we had both seen. But instead of her just making it a ‘I’m making a complaint, now go do something about it!’, she and I were able to say, ‘Hey, what can we do together?’. What can we do next? That’s when the conversation really can get going.”
Through Maguffee, and others, she learned more about the problem and local groups working on the problem of human sex trafficking. (For more information on the subject of human sex trafficking, including a WKTV Journal — In Focus discussion with Wyoming police department’s representative on two groups battling the problem and a link to an award-winning locally produced documentary, “Stuck In Traffic”, see related story here.)
Much of what Shellenbarger found out, many of the avenues she saw to get involved, frustrated her.
“I wanted to do something right now, and a lot of them were ‘You can do this when you get this degree’ or ‘You can do this when you turn this age’,” she said. “I was getting frustrated, but then I found S.O.A.P.”
Other groups working on the problem
Shellenbarger’s discussion with Maguffee led her to the Kent County Human Trafficking Taskforce, a Western Michigan victim-advocacy group which includes the local chapter of Women at Risk International (WAR). (For more information on an upcoming conference led by representatives of WAR, see related story here.)
And a seemingly small activity working with WAR during the 2015 run of ArtPrize led Schllenbarger to “do something now” — she decided to volunteer with WAR and other local groups working on the S.O.A.P. Project (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution), to deliver soap to area hotels and motels — soap wrapped in paper with the telephone number of a hotline to help victims report and escape trafficking crimes.
“There were a lot of people — men and women and kids, all helping to package soap,” she said. “There were a group of girls from Grand Valley (State University) helping me pass out the soap.”
Working with WAR’s S.O.A.P. project in 2015, inspired her to lead a can drive to raise funds for the 2016 S.O.A.P. project — both at her college and, with Maguffee’s help, throughout the City of Wyoming. That combined effort led to about 4,000 cans and about $400 to buy soap to be distributed to motels and southern Kent County.
“It boosted my confidence a lot. I showed me that I can do something right now, even being a broke college student, I can do whatever I put my mind to,” she said. “As far as my career, I wasn’t planning on doing anything associated with criminal justice — I was going to get into human services, to be a child psychologist. But that changed once I realized how passionate I was about this.”
She added that she hopes to work with Wyoming Police Department through a college internship, then, maybe, go to work with the FBI, or a nonprofit in the field, or doing research on the issue, she said.
As far as her continued work with the Wyoming Police Department, Maguffee said he would not be surprised by anything Schllenbarger does.
“To me, this is the important moral of this, especially for people like … [Shellenbarger] and other young people who are interested in getting started and making a change,” he said. “It is really patience over the long term.
“The cynic could talk about her and say that [only a little was accomplished] through a lot of effort — collecting $400 and buying toiletries with a hotline number on them and distributing them to hotels. That’s a great thing. And my hope is that some exploited individual will call one of those numbers and get some help.
“But even if that doesn’t happen, all of this is worth it because a group of young people at Grace Bible College are saying ‘Hey, there are some things going on that we can have an impact on’.”