Upon learning about the severity of human trafficking in Thailand, a Carmel Valley teen decided to take action.
Sofia Keyes, an incoming senior at Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, created a project called Keyes to Freedom. The 17-year-old's organization creates and sells jewelry in the form of keys with amethyst pendants to raise money for nonprofits that raise awareness for and help rescue people in human trafficking situations in Thailand.
"With these pieces that are sold and worn all over the world, my goal is to inspire others to take action, raise awareness and free these victims of human trafficking from bondage," Sofia said.
So far, she has partnered with organizations such as The Freedom Project, which focuses on children taken into the human trafficking market, and Destiny Rescue, which rescues girls from brothels. She explained she can't officially form her own nonprofit until she turns 18 in December.
Sofia first learned about the exploitation problem in Thailand at Pacific Ridge, which integrates global engagement into its curriculum. At the end of every year, the school sets aside two weeks for global travel, with this year's trip being to Thailand in May.
Sofia became interested in what she was learning about and began studying more. She said she was shocked to know the prevalence of the problem, including in her hometown of San Diego.
"The size of the industry was truly incredible," Sofia said. "The more I became engrossed in my research, it was not just enough to be aware of what was happening. I wanted to do something. I wanted to create a physical symbol for people around the world to empathize with these victims and raise funds for organizations dedicated to stopping the exploitation of these people."
When Sofia visited Thailand with her classmates in May, she said she was shocked by how people turn a blind eye to the issue.
"Walking around Bangkok is incredible," she noted. "You'll see these 40-year-old German men walking around with a beautiful 13-year-old Thai girl on their arm. It's so incredibly obvious, yet it's normal there. People don't even recognize that it is a problem."
Upon staying with a tribe in the most northern part of Thailand, Sofia learned the ignorance and naivety was even worse.
She learned that the community was victimized the most because they are desperate for jobs due to their isolated location. Sofia said a lot of the families there will sell their children after being told their sons and daughters would be leaving to work in a restaurant in Bangkok or Phuket. In reality, the children were enslaved for sexual exploitation.
"I was speaking with a mother, through a translator, and she was telling us about how she had just sold her daughter to go work and that she was going to be coming home soon," Sofia recalled. "She was excited for her daughter to bring home money for the family. It was just so odd because we knew her daughter wasn't working in a restaurant and wasn't ever going to come home. These families are naive, and it's so terrible."
Each Keyes to Freedom necklace was designed by Sofia, created with a 3-D printer, casted in silver and adorned with an amethyst stone to represent hope. Sofia said she assembles each piece by hand and has raised about $1,000 since October. Eventually, she said, she looks forward to establishing an entire jewelry line to include more pieces to raise awareness for her mission.
The teen said the jewelry is a conversation piece that can get people talking about an otherwise taboo topic.
"It was important for me to cast a spotlight on this problem because a lot of people don't want to talk about it," Sofia said. "I wanted to create an innovative approach to bring up an uncomfortable issue, and I think that's what it will take to solve something that's so pervasive."
For more information and to purchase a Keyes to Freedom necklace, visit www.keyestofreedom.org