Senior Capstone project raises funds to end sex trafficking

“Every number has a name. Every name has a story.”

So says the straightforward home page of Decoding Freedom’s website. Those numbers are statistics about sex trafficking, and those names are real people who can tell heart-rending stories of their experiences right here in Middle Georgia.

Decoding Freedom is a senior capstone marketing class. The professor, Dr. Tammy Crutchfield, is involved as a volunteer in Middle Georgia with the goal to end sex slavery. Her two-semester course allows students to learn how to research and market an event to people, then to apply those concepts. With Mercer’s emphasis on service, the course combines those practical business skills with a worthy cause.

As their first event, Decoding Freedom hosted the Breakaway Fashion Show on Wednesday, February 25. The event began with those numbers that have names, statistics about sex trafficking handwritten on cardboard posters. With somber faces, about a dozen Mercer students carried the information to the stage of the Willingham Auditorium, where approximately fifty students were in attendance that stormy night.

The grave mood quickly gave way to a more light-hearted atmosphere after the stage cleared and the fashion show began. The first segment was entitled “Day-Time Apparel.” The female models strutted like professionals, pairing the organization’s emblematic jogger pants with crop-tops, classy hats, denim jackets, or whatever else the models wanted. One at a time, the model took left stage, right stage, center stage, then filed out. Next the male models, a little less sober, took the stage in red or black baseball tees with Decoding Freedom’s logo sprawled across the chest. With a little embarrassment, they struck model-esque poses, but contributed to the overall fun atmosphere.

The hosts, Khris Rodriguez, Cailin Knox, and Aneesha Reddicks, announced a brief intermission, though the show had only been about ten minutes long at that point. After the intermission, four members Mercer’s student-led Spoken Word organization, Point B.L.A.N.K., recited poems they had written and memorized for the occasion.

First, Avery Braxton recited “I’m Only a Poet,” in which he conveyed the difficulty of having only words to fight a monumental problem, but finding that his words had power to effect change. Second, Ryan Jones shared “There’s No Stopping a God,” a vivid and poignant metaphor describing the man of a sexually abusive relationship having the power of a malevolent god coming to his people. Third, Shy Antoine performed “From Behind These Bars,” her words painting a picture from the viewpoint of an enslaved person. Fourth, Virgenal Owens narrated “A Day Away from Forever,” reminding the audience of the fears and hopes of victims of sex trafficking.

Owens, the president of Point B.L.A.N.K., explained the research that went into writing the poems. “Most of my preparation was learning more about sex-trafficking and many of the facts and statistics people don’t know about,” he said. The subject material was difficult, he said, but “we tried our best to approach the topic as best as we could.”

The fashion show resumed with “Night-Time Apparel,” which consisted of the same outfits enhanced by darker colors. The show concluded with an auction of one pair of joggers at half price.

The goal of the fashion show, according to Decoding Freedom’s event staff members Cailin Knox and Khris Rodriguez, was to get the word out about Decoding Freedom’s mission, and to advertize the clothing. “We had the pants and shirts to raise money,” Khris said. “How do you get people to be interested in buying clothes from you? Mercer gives away so many free shirts already, a fashion show would show students what we have to offer.”

The joggers they sell come from a rescue mission in Uganda. Each pair of joggers sold provides education on sex trafficking to seven children in Middle Georgia. Each tee-shirt sold raises enough money to educate five. Decoding Freedom’s overall goal is to educate children in Middle Georgia in order to prevent future sex trafficking.

The merchandise will be on sale for the duration of the semester. Visit their website, DecodingFreedom.com, or their Facebook page for more information.

Blaze Jeffrey, president of Decoding Freedom, explained the lasting effects of the fashion show. “I hope that people realize that sex trafficking is happening here in Middle Georgia and feel motivated to help out in any way that they can,” he said, “whether that is through donations to organizations that are working to end it, or helping out these organizations by volunteering or becoming more involved in the work they do.”

Khris Rodriguez agreed, saying, “We don’t just want to sell people things.  If they’re interested in getting involved, we help to be an avenue for these people.”