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El Dorado Hills Oak Ridge High School students take aim at sex trafficking

By: Laura Newell, Telegraph Staff Writer
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One El Dorado Hills student is standing up for her beliefs and fighting for women suffering from sex trafficking crimes. After receiving her Girl Scout Gold Award for a project completed on sex trafficking last year, Oak Ridge junior Kelsey Nager, 17, of El Dorado Hills, is taking her project one step further. To continue educating her community, she is helping host a Trafficking Awareness and Self Defense Day with her school club, the Courage Project Club. Nager founded the club this year. “This crime won’t go away until we all stand up to combat it,” Nager said. “Women are mentally imprisoned by their perpetrators. That is why this is such a frightening crime. They mentally trap these girls.” For her Gold Award project, Nager held the first Trafficking Awareness day last May. “After an extremely successful event last May, (our club) is holding the second Trafficking Awareness and Self Defense Day.” The event will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., registration at 8:30 a.m., on Saturday, April 21, in the Oak Ridge High School gymnasium. “This year, our goal is to fill the gym with students and parents from throughout our district and Sacramento to inform them about this vicious crime affecting our communities,” said Alyssa Ponik, vice president of Courage Project Club. “Also, we encourage girls age 12 and older to participate in the free two-and-a-half hour self-defense training session of this event.” According to Nager, sex trafficking is modern day slavery and is happening all around the world, including the Sacramento region and the foothill communities. “Due to the structure and accessibility of major freeways in our area, Sacramento has been described as one of the worst areas in our nation for sex trafficking,” Nager said. “Even the affluent communities of El Dorado Hills, Cameron Park, and Shingle Springs are not immune to this problem. Four years ago, Vicki Zito’s daughter was taken from the Safeway parking lot in El Dorado Hills. She was trafficked for eight days and was saved after a diligent FBI agent found her in an ad on Craig’s List.” She said her ultimate goal with this event is to help girls get out of dangerous situations, if they ever get into one. “I think my favorite word now is courage,” Nager said. “That word has definitely meant a lot more to me in the last two years than ever before.” Sponsors for this event include Wells Fargo Advisors, Soroptomists of Sacramento and Cameron Park, and Run For Courage, a non profit organization whose mission is to raise awareness and support for rescued victims. “All of our sponsors are dedicated to fighting this terrible crime,” said Nager. “Soroptomists are supporting our goal to fill the Oak Ridge gym by sponsoring a bus filled with students from Rancho Cordova and Sacramento to participate in our event. It is extremely important that we are all aware of this crime and that girls are able to defend themselves from it. It is also important for men, as well as women, to be knowledgeable about this problem and be able to identify the potential warning signs.” Three speakers are scheduled including Rosario Dowling, from California Against Slavery. The non-profit human rights organization has a goal of enacting just and effective state laws to protect victims and prevent and prosecute the crime of human trafficking, said Nager. A rescued victim will also speak at the event, sharing her story and highlighting the risks teens face in becoming caught in this crime. The third speaker, Ray Bryant from Run For Courage, will focus on the organization’s mission and its new addition, the XY Project, which is trying to get more men involved to combat this crime, Nager said. The day will end with self-defense instructions taught by Gary Merlo from West Coast Martial Arts in El Dorado Hills. Merlo has more than 30 years of martial arts experience and is currently a fifth degree black belt. “Girls are strongly encouraged to participate in the self-defense portion of this event (a waiver must be signed by a parent or legal guardian),” Nager said. “The information you collect could not only save your life but also build awareness of a growing problem and need right here in our community.” Nager said there are messages to both men and women attending the event. “For men, I hope they understand that this crime is going on and there are ways that they can help to combat it,” she said. “For women, I hope they walk away with the knowledge that they can get out of a situation like this. I want women to know that this crime is here in our area, not just in big cities or other countries. I want women to understand that the most important thing is to just keep fighting. Never stop fighting for your life.” For more information and a waiver, e-mail courageproject@yahoo.com.