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Bellefonte church aims to help sex trafficking survivors

EMMA GOSALVEZ/THE EXPRESS Pastor Will Osman and his wife Elisa, who helped organize the purse effort, stand beside several of the donated purses at St. John Lutheran Church in Bellefonte.

BELLEFONTE — Forty-six purses full of supplies.

Forty days, including six Sundays.

That’s all it takes to make a difference in the lives of 46 young women who have endured the horrors and tragedies of sex trafficking.

Late last fall, one parishioner of St. John Lutheran Church in Bellefonte attended a screening of “The Turn Out,” a film that shines a light on the reality of domestic sex trafficking at truck stops. After watching the film, which was created by filmmaker and Penn State assistant professor of communications Pearl Gluck, that parishioner felt compelled to do something to help the young women who are being helped by The Freeman Project House, a safe house founded by a survivor featured in the film, Barbara Freeman.

“I was very impressed; it struck a chord,” the parishioner said. “People just embraced the project and took it way beyond where I had imagined.”

For the Lenten season, parishioners of St. John were invited to bring in any of their older or slightly used purses, or even new purses, according to Pastor Will Osman. As part of their Lenten discipline of almsgiving, they were also encouraged to donate items to fill the purses.

On Sunday, April 8, there was a blessing of the purses, which were soon after taken to the Freeman Project House, where they will be distributed at truck stops, large store parking lots and other areas throughout the state.

“We send these purses on to be a sign of new life to those in dark places,” Osman said.

Throughout the Lenten season, many supplies were donated for the purses. Osman said these included hair brushes, hair bands, toiletries, wash cloths, and toothbrushes.

Both the film and the purse project have especially brought a greater sense of awareness of the realities of sex trafficking.

“You sort of hear about things, but you don’t really realize it’s near to home or that it would affect everybody in the community,” said Osman’s wife, Elisa.

The original goal was 40 purses for the 40 days of Lent. Elisa said that they ended up with extra supplies beyond what could fit into the purses, so those will also be donated to the Freeman House.

“I think we really have a diverse range of how we try to serve the world, between projects like this and world hunger,” Elisa said. “We try to serve in a diverse way with local needs and global needs, so we may do something like this again.”

Looking at hopes for what comes out of the project, Elisa said she hopes these young women find freedom and wholeness in their lives. “For even just one life to be transformed,” Osman said is his hope.

“What Pearl really wants to happen is for the film to kind of be this conduit to activism,” said Renae Nichols, Gluck’s colleague and assistant teaching professor of public relations. “We’re so excited that the church there got involved because that’s exactly what should happen. What we want to happen is that people see this, and become aware of the problem, because we often travel along the interstate and you aren’t even aware of what’s actually occurring.”

To help promote “The Turn Out,” Nichols has gotten her students involved with various public relations efforts. Such efforts include publicizing the film’s screenings and getting the community involved with a purse drive.

Gluck said her hopes extend far beyond help at the community level and that her film does create a greater sense of awareness of what really goes on.

“A larger majority of prostitution, as high as 80 percent, is actually coercion and trafficking,” she said. “I think that if johns knew that, they may actually not hire, knowing that these women –and some of them are underage girls without them knowing it– are actually being coerced in different ways. I really think that focusing on that could be very, very powerful.”

On Saturday, April 28, there will be a 7 p.m. screening of “The Turn Out” at the Rowland Theatre in Philipsburg. Prior to the screening, there will be live music that is featured in the film, and food and drink will be provided. Tickets are $10 each and can be purchased at the door or online at www.rowlandtheatre.com.

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/2028237057498321/.

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