At a glance, Hilton Head Island seems like an idyllic vacationer’s paradise, as a coveted retirement destination. Unfortunately, there is a side that many observers don’t see or don’t want to see. Driving through the gated communities it’s difficult to conceive of human trafficking as being an issue, but it is a very real one.
Dealing with a medically underserved and less economically stable demographic, the staff and volunteers at our clinic have seen and heard about this issue first hand. In fact, one of our volunteers, Katy Coyle, was instrumental in preventing a local young woman from being caught up in a trafficking ring. And she learned about the resources available through her work at the Volunteers in Medicine Hilton Head Island Clinic.
Julie Copp, the clinic’s director of nursing, said she was approached about eight years ago by a local advocacy group about coming to the clinic to talk about human trafficking and its local impact. She realized quickly she didn’t know the breadth of the issue.
“They came in and talked to us and showed a video,” she said. “It was from a place 20 miles from where I [lived] in Ohio in Amish country. I had no idea.”
The group, which has since disbanded, came back on other occasions to share new information and strategies with the VIM HHI nurses and staff. Coyle, a nurse volunteer from Michigan, was equally unaware of the problem locally. Thankfully, she learned because it may just have saved a young woman’s life.
Katy and her husband befriended Belinda, (not her real name) a server at a restaurant they frequented. Belinda, who relocated to the Lowcountry, was young, impressionable and easily susceptible to the kind of people that prey on these young people for profit.
“She was very naïve,” Coyle said. “She was from a small, rural area. She was home-schooled. It was a very strict religious family. She was sheltered and not very worldly.”
Because of her upbringing, Belinda developed a bit of wanderlust. And that desire to see the world caused her to almost get swept up in a catastrophic situation.
“These human traffickers prey on young people on social media and other internet sites,” Coyle said. “Belinda saw a Facebook ad looking for traveling companions. The ad said that these companions would accompany people while they traveled — to help them. It seemed like a great opportunity to her. The ad said that the companions would be able to travel to Florida. That’s one of the places she’d always been interested in going to, so she got involved in it.”
Coyle said Belinda was recruited and made arrangements to join up and travel to Florida. Unfortunately, things went sideways pretty quickly for the young woman. Coyle did not hear from Belinda after she left until she received a cryptic text message. The message said that she wasn’t doing well and that things were not headed in the right direction.
“She said, ‘Someday I’ll have to tell you more about these people. They aren’t who they said they were,’” Coyle said. Take your pick– red flags, warning bells, ominous feelings – Coyle said the text triggered all of them.
What happened next was something out of a movie. Instead of going to Florida, Belinda had been taken by the people to a campground somewhere in Tennessee. Coyle knew something was wrong, and thanks to her training at VIM HHI, knew the best way to help would be to keep lines of communication open until they could get assistance to arrive.
In a succession of text messages, Belinda revealed that the people she was with were more like captors than employers. They kept her under close watch and didn’t let her go off on her own. They forced her to panhandle for money to pay for their travel expenses. Belinda told Coyle that one of the men showed her a knife at one point and said that he had been forced to use it before. Belinda had purchased three bus tickets to Florida for herself and the couple she was with. Their tickets were round-trip while Belinda’s was one-way. She was now scared and Coyle and her husband jumped into action.
Coyle called the National Human Trafficking Hotline and a representative helped her through the process of getting Belinda home safely.
“The people from the hotline were helping me,” she said. “They told me to keep her on the line. To interject nonsense texts and pictures in case the captors took the phone so it wouldn’t appear like Belinda was trying to evade them.”
Contact was made with one of Belinda’s relatives who was within driving distance. Once that person was on the road, the most important thing was trying to find a way for Belinda to escape the camp undetected. It wasn’t easy because she was under constant scrutiny. She went to the rest room to send and receive messages. She was grateful that there was cellular reception that allowed for communication with Coyle.
The Coyles and the hotline officials were able to narrow down her exact location through phone triangulation. Eventually, as her relative was in the area, the opportunity to escape the camp presented itself. They let Belinda know where her relative was and she made a break for it.
What happened next was silence. No communication for several minutes. The wait was agonizing as Coyle held out hope that things were going well. After what seemed like an interminable wait, she finally received word.
“The text was from her relative,” Coyle said. “It said, ‘I have her. She’s safe.’”
The sense of relief was palpable. Everybody took a deep breath. Belinda was safe and on her way to safety. She’s back locally now, staying with a couple from the same area of the country she moved here from. They also have a story of escaping from difficult circumstances. It’s a great fit for everybody involved as Belinda tries to recover from the trauma she suffered.
If you suspect that human trafficking is going on you can contact the national hotline at (888)373-7888 or by texting 233733. The organization’s website is humantraffickinghotline.org and has great information including statistics on human trafficking that will shock and surprise you.