Junior League is making strides against human trafficking

Most of the womanpower at the fifth annual Rally Against Human Trafficking came from the Junior League of San Diego, which last year marked its 90th year of training and empowering women to effect positive change in their communities.

Marching shoulder to shoulder and determined to bring human trafficking to a grinding halt, an impassioned ensemble of advocates and lawmakers rallied in Balboa Park on Jan. 13 to raise awareness and strengthen the collaborative ties needed to combat the crisis.

The event marked the fifth year in the Junior League of San Diego’s campaign against human trafficking, which ensnares more than 5,000 people each year in San Diego and is the region’s second-largest underground economy (after drug trafficking), with an estimated $810 million in annual revenue.

For years, the Junior League has tackled the thorniest of societal ills.

Seeing San Diego grow increasingly caught up in the human trafficking epidemic, Junior League members made it one of the chapter’s two central issues and focused their substantial energies on education and legislative reform.

“These people deserve special handling, special rehabilitation, special counseling as victims,” said Debbie Rider, a longtime Junior Leaguer.

As director of development at the University of San Diego School of Law, the Carmel Valley resident has connected donors with the school’s Children's Advocacy Institute, which has lobbied state legislators to create a third track through the judicial system so that trafficking victims will be treated neither as criminals nor as delinquents.

And as a Junior League devotee for more than two decades, she has helped give shape to one of the area’s foremost and far-reaching forces in philanthropy, boasting more than 350 active members, another 600-plus women who stay connected and an untold number of alumni.

All told, its members amassed 75,000 volunteer hours last year.

“We are organizers by nature, we are event-throwers by nature,” Rider said in an interview at her USD office. “Through the collective power of all of those members working together, you can really mobilize and get out and do something real big.”

The San Diego chapter was founded in 1927, making it the fifth in California. For decades, they worked across a wide variety of topics in collaboration with an even wider variety of organizations. Then, around 15 years ago, the chapter took a different tack, deciding to hone in on one or two topics in order to maximize its impact over a longer period of time. When Rider arrived from Dallas in the 1990s, the San Diego chapter’s focus was on preventing domestic violence. They lobbied for harsher punishments for offenders and better funding for women's resource centers. After that came women's health, then children's health, then childhood obesity and literacy.

Its involvement in human trafficking grew out of their other current focus area: young adults transitioning out of the foster system. Each year in San Diego County, approximately 300 teenagers and young adults age out of foster care, and are promptly met with a dearth of resources and guidance, Rider said. Sixty-five percent have no place to call home. Within two to four years, half are unemployed, half are homeless and one-quarter are in jail. Over that span, only 3 percent will have graduated from college.

“Your foster parents are no longer being paid to house you and you're set out on your own,” Rider said. “You often become a victim of human trafficking because you have to find a way to make money.”

Finding a way to make money is at the heart of Junior League’s philanthropic prowess. Its annual gala in November at Morgan Run Country Club raised around $30,000 for its various anti-trafficking efforts. The chapter members will decide in a couple months how to dole out those funds to the dozens of agencies and nonprofits they are partnering with.

It’s successes like those that remind Rider that the Junior League thrives because of women who aren’t content to sit on the sidelines, idly reading about issues in the news or on TV. Membership starts with a rigorous year of seminars and classes as new members learn how to collaborate with other nonprofits, the nuts and bolts of setting an agenda and motivating people — and especially, how to fundraise.

“We call it the graduate school of volunteerism,” Rider said.

Active membership is set at seven years, but some Junior Leaguers get so wrapped up in good doings that they stay on for as long as 20 years. From there, members transition to “sustainer” status — staying connected to the mission but free of the busy schedule of meetings and trainings.

For Rider, that activism made possible her tenures on several boards of directors —the Children’s School in La Jolla, the YMCA Encinitas, Girl Scouts, the Del Mar Pines Foundation — all of which came through Junior League connections. She also takes pride to see the Junior League acts as a sort of philanthropy incubator, giving rise to civic-minded offspring, including the Polinsky Children’s Center, the International House of Hospitality and LEAD San Diego.

But why, having long passed her 20-year benchmark, does Rider stay connected?

“Youthful enthusiasm,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I stay involved to watch our young women get excited about improving the communities that they live in and that they intend to raise their family in. I just love when they bite into something, when they get excited about what they’re doing and when they bring it out in others.”

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