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Sex trafficking of children a tough subject for churches; lack of funding forces delay in Atlanta internship program

September 13, 2010

Despite some modest success in its first year, the Atlanta Urban Intern Program, a project of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, will suspend operations for a year and will resume in the fall of 2011.

 

“I’m regretful to tell you that fact, because it implies that the money you gave us has been lost,” said David Purdum, director of the program. “But it’s not lost in the sense we have learned and we are determined to continue a year from now. Our funding strategy is to move much more deeply into the diocese and to try to bring in not only volunteers who will help our interns but will begin to make an emotional and a financial investment in this work.”

 

The AUIP aims to prevent commercial sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta. Part of that involves inviting girls, ages 12-13, from the Peoplestown neighborhood of Atlanta to work together for two years to develop a community garden and, under the tutelage of the interns – women in their 20s – the girls will learn about food and cooking, nutrition, microenterprise and employment skills.

 

But as Purdum is the first to admit, the program is a tough sell. People don’t like to talk about the sexualization of children. As a result, the program was unable to raise enough money to recruit sufficient interns with the appropriate skills to go forward this year.

 

“We’re asking our interns to bring to the community some awareness of sexualization,” Purdum said. “So that they begin to have some reflective consciousness, some intimation of the way in which they have been formed toward an extreme and premature sexuality by virtually everything they see in terms of popular culture and entertainment. It’s very challenging. And our interns, frankly, backed away from that. I think we underestimated their readiness to do that kind of work.”

 

Purdum shares the story of organizing a field trip for girls to a local gas station to see whether it’s possible to find a healthy after-school snack for under $5. An intern wrote about the excursion in her journal: “The best healthy snack would be the winner. I remember the girls excited about leaving before dark and thinking about their choices at the gas station. Snickers and chips, sodas loaded with high fructose corn syrup decorate the shelves. Tonisha, always vibrant and outspoken, wins and walks out proud with her orange juice and granola bars. And then I hear it: ‘Hey baby!’ from some guy who moves toward her, old enough to be her father. In a second she deflates. Her delight is gone and a scared little girl hurries over to the car. Going home she tells me how gross it is when they do that…”

 

Purdum notes that such encounters aren’t restricted to sleazy men in the shadows of a gas station. “It comes from men who look like me: educated, professional men who fly into Hartsfield every day, have sex with a little girl, then fly home in time for dinner with their families. Each month in Atlanta, 7,200 men have commercial sex with children.”

 

He says this appalling situation involving the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children – including children in some Episcopal parishes – is difficult for churches to talk about. “It’s something deflected and resisted all the way around. No one wants to think about the true brutality being done to little girls in Atlanta,” he said.

 

But Purdum says he’s learned some practical lessons about organizing the project in Peoplestown – one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in Atlanta – and he’s gained new friends and allies. He believes the program will be successfully resurrected a year from now.

 

“We are committed. We will continue,” he says.

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