POMEROY — The Meigs County Cooperative Parish hosted Penny Hoeflinger, an educator and survivor of human trafficking, on Saturday morning.
Hoeflinger shared her story about her experience of being trafficked for years. At age 6, Hoeflinger said she was raped by a 14-year-old boy on her way home from school in her hometown in Wyoming. They went to court, but the judge told her she was “a bad girl.” This started the spiral in her life.
Over the next several years, Hoeflinger found herself in similar situations, such as one with a council member who told her she could pet his horses if she met him in a nearby cornfield. Hoeflinger said he did whatever he wanted to her and “it was their secret.” Later, Hoeflinger would perform sexual acts to receive passing grades in high school.
At the age of 16, she was becoming a drug addict. Around the same time, she met her first husband. They had three children. One night, he sold her to another man as a sex slave so he could have cash to buy alcohol and a new pair of boots. This begun her experience with human trafficking.
For nearly the next 17 years, Hoeflinger was sold into sexual slavery to countless people. She was taken from Wyoming all the way to Florida, Maine and in between. Hoeflinger was beaten if she did what they said and if she did not. Hoeflinger, and other victims of human trafficking, do not receive payment from the “buyers.” There is a person, or people, who control their lives and collect the payment. Hoeflinger said if she was lucky, she would have been given food, water, or drugs from the trafficker.
When Hoeflinger’s children were 4, 3, and 1, they were staying with a neighbor, who she thought was a friend. While Hoeflinger was working one night, the neighbor took the children to a state agency and said they were abandoned. Hoeflinger’s three children were sold by the state agency to a family in Kansas, she told those in attendance. Hoeflinger has since reconnected with her children, but she said they each are still healing from their own experiences with trafficking.
In 2019, Hoeflinger will be celebrating 39 years of a life free from being trafficked, and being clean from heroin and tequila. It took two years of in a treatment facility for Hoeflinger to find her way. At that time, Hoeflinger said she found Jesus and became a new person and was saved from that old life.
Hoeflinger is now an advocate for human trafficking victims and works to educate and spread awareness of human trafficking. She created an organization to help victims and survivors called Coffee House Farm.
“I teach from the heart, because I lived it,” Hoeflinger said. She said it’s hard sometimes to look back on those difficult times in her life, but she feels it was put in her heart to educate the public about this too common practice.
Hoeflinger has created many resources and has many tips to protect yourself and people you know from being trafficked.
The types of trafficking that Hoeflinger explained were: sex trafficking, exploiting or selling babies, servitude, labor pornography, and organ harvesting.
“It isn’t exactly like what is on the shows. There are a lot of stories in there,” Hoeflinger said. “Everybody thinks it’s just ‘they take them and they do this.’ It’s not.”
Some tips to protect yourself and loved ones from human trafficking include:
-Never set your drink down when at a gathering or party.
-Pay attention to grooming tactics such as compliments, gifts, asking for money, or saying ‘I’m the only one who really loves you.’
-Look out for vulnerable people such as someone who is angry with family, unhappy, isolated, abused, in foster care, or defenseless.
-Turn off the internet when going to bed to protect children.
-Always keep devices in an open area in the house to protect children.
-Strengthen your community by organizing activities, meet your neighbors, educate about trafficking, and strengthen your relationships with family and friends
-Stay together in public places
Hoeflinger stressed that if you suspect human trafficking is going on, call the national hotline to alert authorities. She says it is better to call and nothing is going on than to let it go and have more people be in danger.
“I’m always challenging people to know who you know. Know your neighborhood,” Hoeflinger said. “Who’s in your block. Do you really know who’s in your block? Do you really know the pain that’s going on inside of them?”
Hoeflinger said it is important to sit and talk with people. Ask them questions and watch their facial expressions. Trafficking victims are in plain sight and out in the public. Some signs that someone is being trafficked include no eye contact, anxious, exhaustion, not dressed for the weather, appear to have an injury, altered mental state, etc. However, not every victim is the same.
“Every person that has been sold out there is an individual person,” Hoeflinger said. “You cannot put them in a box.”
Hoeflinger’s workbooks can be purchased online. The workbook for children is called “Avoiding the Octopus.” There is also a book for first responders called “A First Responder’s Guide to Human Trafficking. What You Might See and What You Should Do.” A book about her story is also available called “The Children of the Poor.” She can be contacted online by going to www.coffeehousefarm.com/
Hoeflinger also created a free app called “TraffickJam” to walk you through the steps of reporting a trafficking incident.
If you suspect that you are witnessing human trafficking, contact the federal Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Kayla Hawthorne is a freelance writer for The Daily Sentinel.