Sex trafficking is no longer just an international crime.
"It's happening here in Merced, right under our nose," said Jennifer Tripp, a teacher at Providence Christian School. "It's cheaper to use our children and move them to another city, than to import children from another country."
Exact statistics are unknown because of the covert nature of sex trafficking, but an estimated 293,000 children in the United States are in danger of being sexually trafficked, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.
The majority of these victims are introduced to trafficking between the ages of 11 to 14, and are usually abused, in foster care or runaways, said Tripp, who's studying human trafficking at California State University, Stanislaus.
Trafficking is a $32 billion a year industry and has become the second-fastest growing criminal industry, behind drug trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
With the rise of this form of "modern-day slavery," Tripp decided to raise awareness about the issue in Merced nearly a year ago.
Tripp partnered with Courage Worldwide, an organization that builds safe houses for children rescued out of sex trafficking, to kick off the first-ever fund-raising concert and awareness event Saturday.
"This event is a springboard for the community to learn about what's happening in our own city," Tripp said, adding that all proceeds from ticket sales will benefit Courage Worldwide.
Be Courageous: A Movement to End Sex Trafficking will feature an appearance by San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, who's been advocating for the cause during each off-season, as well as musical performances by The Reel, The Music Room and Cindy Maslov.
Ruth Walstrom, a teacher at Shaffer Elementary School in Atwater, has been helping Tripp organize Saturday's event. She said sex trafficking is a growing problem in Merced that hasn't received enough attention.
"It's a problem that no one is talking about locally," she said. "People think it's a foreign problem, and they don't understand how local it is."
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said no sex trafficking crimes have been reported to the Sheriff's Department, but added there's a "stark difference" between a crime being reported and the possibility of it happening.
"We would never be able to say with 100 percent certainty that it's not happening here," Pazin said. "This event on Saturday could offer some support for people to come forward. It's also a very good educational format for people to take note of any signs or symptoms that could be reported to law enforcement."
Authorities agree that sex trafficking is a difficult crime to report because many of the victims are brainwashed, forced, tricked or manipulated into prostitution.
Tripp said knowledge and awareness are a big part of Saturday's event.
"We're going to arm people with information so they can recognize when it is sex trafficking and when it's not," Tripp said.
Walstrom agreed. "We want to train people to identify problem situations and teach them how to follow through with the rescuing of someone who's been a victim. If it helps one woman or child, then it's worth the effort."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Be Courageous: A Movement to End Sex Trafficking
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Gateway Community Church, 353 E. Donna Drive, Merced
FEATURING: San Francisco Giants Pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, other speakers and music by The Reel, The Music Room and Cindy Maslov
TO BENEFIT: Courage Worldwide, an organization that builds safe houses for children rescued out of sex trafficking
TICKETS: $10 at Hope Christian store in Merced, Gateway Community Church or facebook.com/becourageousmerced. Tickets also are available for $12.50 at the door.