FARGO – The epiphany hit Melissa Raguse two years ago while she was sitting in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
She was at a Christian conference for college students, listening to a talk about human trafficking. The speaker told the crowd that more than 20 million people were enslaved around the globe.
When Raguse began trying to put a face to each of those millions, that’s when the magnitude of the problem struck her, and she realized her calling was to help victims of sexual exploitation.
“At that point, I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what to do yet, but I knew that that’s what I was supposed to do,” she said. “The light bulb came on.”
Raguse, who grew up in Atlanta, went on to finish college at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, where she majored in criminal justice. She married a North Dakota State University grad and moved to Fargo.
With that light bulb still burning bright, Raguse is now working to found 1ForceUnited, a nonprofit organization with a mission of spreading the word about human trafficking and empowering its victims.
“We want to rescue as many people as we can, so we’re partnering with people like law enforcement,” she said. “So they’ll call us if they have a rescue victim.”
Raguse, 22, plans soon to start a push to raise $500,000 to $750,000 over the next few years to open what she calls a restoration facility, with 12 to 15 beds. She envisions it as a secure place where victims can receive health care, food, clothing and other support that would help them transition to an independent life.
Raguse hopes eventually to hire staff, but right now it’s just her working full time on 1ForceUnited, with help from her husband, Ryan Raguse. She’s in the process of finding a Fargo site for the facility.
“Once we have the land to build on, we will get started as soon as funds are available,” she said.
While many hurdles remain before 1ForceUnited can become more than a vision, leaders of local nonprofit groups say there’s a need for a facility focused on caring for victims of human trafficking.
In the last year, Youthworks, which aides runaways and homeless youths in Fargo and Bismarck, has served at least five or six such victims, said Executive Director Melanie Heitkamp.
“There have been many more victims in our centers than we even knew because we didn’t know the right questions to ask,” she said.
When trying to break free of the control of pimps, victims sometimes feel they’re in danger and they may have security needs that a specialized facility could help with, Heitkamp said.
“I do think it’s really important to have a place that knows how to handle these situations because they’re tricky,” she said.
Lately, human trafficking has received much attention from politicians and victims’ advocates in North Dakota and elsewhere. Just last week, three events in Fargo spotlighted the issue, including one Friday, where U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Melanie Heitkamp’s sister, hosted a training session on how to recognize sexual exploitation and how to take action against it.
In western North Dakota, the influx of a largely male workforce in the Oil Patch has brought with it a demand for prostitutes. And in some cases, this sex for sale has turned out to be human trafficking.
Law enforcement has had some success in identifying these cases. But tracking the number of victims in the state is difficult because not every agency – nonprofit, government or otherwise – is counting, Melanie Heitkamp said, noting that without data, grant money becomes difficult to obtain.
“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do in how we’re handling victims and how we’re helping them,” she said.
In Williston, Windie Jo Lazenko has embarked on a project similar to 1ForceUnited. Lazenko, a Southern California native who moved to North Dakota seven months ago, runs 4her North Dakota, a nonprofit group that aims to open a 30-day crisis shelter with at least six beds for victims of sexual exploitation.
“North Dakota is experiencing a great deal of human trafficking,” said Lazenko, who welcomes other efforts to assist victims. “We need more than 4her North Dakota to be able to provide statewide services.”
This summer, Lazenko is planning an outreach program that would visit truck stops, common markets for prostitution, and would let potential victims know that her organization can help them.
“A lot of the girls don’t understand that they’re people that count their lives as worthy and really want to see them live a purposeful life,” she said.