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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on human trafficking. Next week details will be shared about who is targeted by traffickers, how they seek out victims and ways to educate youth about the dangers.
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Was Sydney Loofe the victim of human trafficking? While that’s not a question officials are answering yet, her tragic death has lead to more local awareness and education of trafficking.
Loofe was a 2011 graduate of Neligh-Oakdale, which is why a Hunter Bergman, a 2016 graduate, is raising awareness for the cause that is close to the hearts of those in Antelope County — anti-human trafficking.
Bergman is part of the Phi Beta Lambda Community Service Project team at Northeast Community College, whose goal is to raise awareness, educate the local communities and fundraise for anti-human trafficking efforts, including the Sydney Loofe Memorial Scholarship which was recently created.
The scholarship will be awarded to someone pursuing a career in criminal justice or a similar field that will help fight human trafficking.
Bergman said Loofe’s death played a huge role in why they decided to focus on human trafficking for their project. One of the theories with Loofe, whose body was found last December after being missing for nearly three weeks, was trafficking, although law enforcement have not confirmed that.
“George Loofe (her father) was my football coach,” Bergman said. “When the whole Sydney Loofe case went down — whether it had to do with human trafficking or not — we really wanted to capitalize on the safety aspect — social media and how dangerous that can be.”
Loofe met one of the persons of interest in her case via Tinder, an online dating app. Bergman said another key reason to raise awareness was the recent in O’Neill in March, which led to the arrest of two traffickers and the rescue of a female victim.
Bergman and the project team has partnered with the Set Me Free Project, a non-profit organization that was created about four years ago to cover the gap between awareness and education about human trafficking.
Stephanie Olson, CEO and president of the Set Me Free Project, said, they are educating people about potential targets.
“We noticed that there were a lot of things starting to happen in Nebraska with anti-trafficking coalitions and groups, but what we noticed was there was a gap in education. So there was a lot of awareness happening but, people were not talking to the targets of the traffickers,” she said.
Olson went on to say that only 1 to 2 percent of trafficked victims are actually rescued, which made the O’Neill case very special.
Arrested at an O’Neill hotel were Robert Dean, 61, of Valentine and Dosha Harris, 27, of Lincoln. The age of the rescued victim was not released to protect her identity.
“The targets are youth,” she said. “We realized that no one is going to the schools telling the kids this and no one is talking to the parents, so we started working in that arena to cover that gap and to stop trafficking before it starts.”
When Bergman reached out to partner with the Set Me Free Project, Olson jumped at the opportunity. The Set Me Free Project was already working with the Loofe family on a scholarship fund, as well as working on the #traffickingstopswithme campaign, so they naturally joined forces.
The #traffickingstopswithme campaign involves going to business and organizations and providing consistent training for their staff to be watching out for not only victims, but also for potential victims and grooming situations, in exchange for a small annual sponsorship.
Olson said Nebraska is a hotspot for human trafficking for several reasons, the first being the presence of Interstate 80 running through the state.
“It is a huge way that people can not only travel but traffic — traffic drugs, traffic people, whatever that may be,” she said.
Although I-80 doesn’t run through Antelope County, rural Nebraska areas are also hit heavily because so many people are trusting. Olson said people are not as cautious about strangers in rural areas.
“Number one, people don’t expect it to happen,” Olson said. “We’re Nebraska nice. We’re trusting, we’re nice people, and I think we kind of expect that to happen — people to be nice and trusting.”
Another contributing factor to human trafficking in rural Nebraska areas is social media, which is one of the number one ways traffickers are targeting youth, according to Olson. Rural areas are connected to the world very quickly and very easily due to technology.
Bergman and his team will compete with their fundraiser project at the PBL national competition June 22-24 in Baltimore, MD. Sixty percent of the money raised during the project will go to the Set Me Free Project, and the other 40 percent will go toward the Sydney Loofe Memorial Scholarship.
To learn more about human trafficking or to support the cause by purchasing a t-shirt, go to www.setmefreeproject.net.