ST. GEORGE — Friday is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, an event organized by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the purpose of which is to educate people across the globe on sex trafficking and sex slavery and what individuals can do to eradicate these scourges in their countries and in the world.
A group of individuals in St. George is providing money, materials, labor and supplies to Saving Hearts Together, a program based in Costa Rica that provides shelter, counseling, job training and hope to trafficking victims and their children.
Saving Hearts’ founder, Maria Fejervary, who also ran a daycare in Atlanta, said the organization was never planned. During a family vacation in Jaco, Costa Rica in 2010, as she walked downtown, Fejervary said she witnessed young girls offering sexual favors for $10 to $15. Fejervary estimates the girls’ ages to be between 12 and 14.
“It’s hard to tell,” she said. “They make them up to look much older.”
Over the next two years, Fejervary attended conferences on human trafficking and sexual exploitation all over the United States. She said she believes she was being called to her new vocation. When she told her pastor, he said, “You’re crazy.”
Brooke Johnson Roper
St. George resident Brooke Johnson Roper learned of the sex industry in Costa Rica in the same serendipitous fashion. She said she was on a corporate retreat in Costa Rica in October 2019 when she met Fejervary, who then introduced Roper to a survivor who told Roper her story.
“She was American, a child, trafficked by a family member. She was enslaved many years,” Roper said, which prompted her to get involved.
Roper joined the Saving Hearts board and set about raising awareness and raising money to build the facility.
“I have a staffing background,” she said.
One of the many problems Saving Hearts and Roper faced was providing viable alternatives to the sex trade.
“These girls have zero or limited education,” Roper said, adding that without skills or education, many girls return to the trade because it is all they know.
Roper said since joining Saving Hearts, she has been able to tell others she has seen sex trafficking with her own eyes.
“I can shed light on the ugliness. I can dive into the nitty gritty and look for a solution to get these girls out of their situation,” she said, also noting that she wants people to know that the U.S. is the primary contributor to sex trafficking in Costa Rica.
“I hope people will see this ugly side of Costa Rica and stop contributing to the trafficking.”
Fejervary spent two years putting the pieces in place. She met people from the U.S. Embassy and PANI, the Costa Rican equivalent of child protective services, and she also received a license from the health ministry.
“We became the first licensed facility ever in the county to take care of minor victims of human trafficking,” Fejervary said.
The first girl she took in was strung out on heroin.
“She was from Florida. Her abuser was her father. He started abusing her when she was five,” Fejervary said. “By eight, she was addicted to heroin, glue, anything he could give to her in order to be complacent to be able to be raped.”
St. George resident Sarah McAllister described her introduction to Saving Hearts as synchronistic. “I learned of Maria (Fejervary) from a friend. All the pieces came together,” she said.
McAllister has a medical background but considers her human connection the main asset she brings to Saving Hearts.
“I’ll be taking drips down there (Costa Rica) quite often to help bring appropriate workers and others when the time comes. I’ll be networking,” McAllister said.
McAllister started a Saving Hearts GoFundMe account. Funding is necessary to build the facility and to maintain day-to-day operations. McAllister added that basic tools such as chainsaws and weedwhackers are extremely expensive in Costa Rica.
“A chainsaw costs $3000,” she said.
Money is not the only formidable challenge facing Saving Hearts and its mission to keep girls out of the sex trade.
“In Costa Rica,” McAllister said, “it’s a cultural norm for fathers to believe their daughters and granddaughters are their property. Men believe they have a right to that body.”
She added that graft and corruption are rampant: “It’s very easy to pay off the police.”
McAllister said empowering the girls through education is the best defense against entrenched cultural beliefs.
“You take young ladies who literally don’t have a chance and give them a voice,” she said. “The more people who stand up, the more people will have to listen. There is no simple answer, but you have to start somewhere.”
Paul Hatch, CEO of St. George-based Allies, met Fejervary in Costa Rica in 2019. In May, Hatch arranged a presentation Fejervary delivered to St. George business leaders. Hatch said he continues to use the Allies platform to promote Saving Hearts and its mission in Costa Rica.
Also working with the Allies team is Brian Davis, an Allies partner who oversees organizing cargo deliveries to the Saving Hearts facility, as well as securing grants for the organization.
The new facility
Recently, Saving Hearts Together purchased a 40-acre property in Cosa Rica that boasts a 3,000 square foot dining hall, a swimming pool and a covered outdoor eating area. Fejervary plans to return to Costa Rica in January.
“We’ll start building one of the quads,” she said.
When finished, the housing facility will comprise four quads with a capacity to house 100 girls.
“We are the only facility in the country that is specialized in dealing with the trauma of these kids and the program we offer is extensive,” Fejervary said.
Ed. note: When making charitable contributions it is advisable to consult with professionals for tax advice and investment risks.
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