By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 3, 2019
ATLANTA—Metro Atlanta has earned a reputation as a hub of human trafficking and related criminal activity in the shadows of conventions, sporting events and the bustling, international airport.
Men with Knights of Columbus Thomas O’Reilly Council 4358 at St. Thomas More Church, Decatur, are rolling up their sleeves to work on a new safe house for women caught in the commercial sex industry.
“It doesn’t just have to happen. There are actually things you can do about it,” said Philip Lee, the grand knight of the council.
Metro Atlanta is among the top U.S. regions for human trafficking. In 2018, 375 cases were reported and 903 phone calls or texts for aid referenced Georgia, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline Resource Center.
Seeing the need, members of the council gave up weekends. They made repeated trips to what will be a new, larger safe house for women desiring to escape trafficking.
The council members refurbished an eight-acre property into a refuge, with fresh coats of paint and clearing a restful walking path around the grounds.
David Hall said his hope is the council members make the lives of the women served at the safe house “a little more tranquil.”
The volunteers work with Out of Darkness and the Freedom Now Movement. Both focus on aiding sex-trafficking victims.
It’ll be the second house set up by Out of Darkness, a Christian organization. The spacious new home will serve up to a dozen women, according to its Facebook video.
The Out of Darkness ministry aims to help women with “the love and support of a new family,” said its website. The house supports victims with offering a safe haven, clothing, medical treatment and representation for legal needs. Women stay about three weeks before moving into a long-term program with supportive counseling, spiritual restoration, parenting and job skills development and GED classes to start a new life. It is a ministry of the Atlanta Dream Center.
Faith in action
The Knights of Columbus got involved with the project after its members were approached by the nephew of Joel Peddle, the chancellor of Council 4358.
“We show up with our hammers, crowbars, electric drills, work boots and knee pads,” Peddle said in a news release. “[We say] let’s go to this room, we need teams here. And team by team, we go do something. …You see guys working and without complaint, with joy in their hearts.”
The council endorsed the idea from when it was proposed, Lee said. “We are always looking for opportunities to be hands-on.”
A theme of the fraternal organization is to put faith into action to help people, which has different rewards than fundraising for worthy causes, said Lee, 54, who works in computer support. He’s been a member of the parish since 1993 and a member of the Knights of Columbus for several years.
It’s a new venture for the council. The Knights of Columbus are known for supporting anti-abortion programs, such as assisting crisis pregnancy centers. And while this project with human trafficking by some may be seen as outside that mandate, Lee said the council believes it fits in mission of the Knights of Columbus to aid the vulnerable.
“This is just another form of that in our view. It is another segment of the population that is being victimized,” he said.
More than 20 Knights and their families have gone to the property to renovate the home. Some of the Knights work alongside their children as they volunteer. It can lead to uncomfortable discussions about trafficking and sexual exploitation, but the conversation doesn’t end without hope as people see the work pay off at the safe house, Lee said.
Hall is the deputy grand knight. He’s been at the home that fell into disrepair a handful of times. He and others stripped wallpaper, emptied an accessory building and pulled up the dirty carpet.
“We’ve stripped out a lot. We’ve tried to take it down to the bare bones,” said Hall, 54, who works in the corporate computer support.
In the refurbished home will be spaces for a staff of counselors, a sun-light classroom for art therapy, in addition to its living with a large brick fireplace for women to gather around to relax. A large kitchen will bring the women together to cook and eat dinner family-style, according to an Out of Darkness video shared on Facebook. Some 126 victims of commercial sexual exploitation were taken to its safe house, with 55 choosing to move to long-term care, according to the Out of Darkness 2018 annual report.
“We are always trying to help the most vulnerable and we feel this is something to be done,” Hall said.