BILLINGS - Students at Billings West High School will be hearing lectures about human trafficking this week as part of a program called Journey 2 Empowerment.
The program works closely with The HER Campaign, an organization that helps trafficking survivors reintegrate into society, and shares their stories with students to help raise awareness.
HER Campaign employee Selah Catt said that for most of the survivors she works with, their abuse began when they were in high school.
"Just about all of them, their trafficking started when they were teenagers," Catt said. "This is a real problem, and it's happening in our schools currently."
Catt said that there are probably many students dealing with the early stages of trafficking in the Billings schools.
"Actually, in the hallways right now, you have girls and guys who are experiencing some sort of abuse or exploitation," Catt said. "Students need to be heard. They need to have a voice."
And that's exactly why Journey 2 Empowerment Director Carol Kuhns said she wanted to start the conversation in schools.
"We just want to be a group of safe people that care about these kids," Kuhns said.
Kuhn's team started presenting in the health enhancement classes Monday and they will be there throughout the rest of the week. She hopes that the program will continue to expand into other schools across Billings.
"We are taking it into the health programs with the freshmen classes because all freshmen have to take health," Kuhns said. "I'd love to get this going in as early as elementary schools, but for now, this is a good place to start."
The health classes will be split up with boys in one class and girls in the other. Kuhns said that is to make sure that the students are comfortable and that the lectures differ a bit from which group is listening.
"We wanted to make sure it was personal," Kuhns said. "We wanted to make sure it was real. We have a survivor in the classes sharing her stories, and it just works better if they are split up and hearing the presentation separately."
West High health teacher Kelly Deming said this program fits well with what a typical curriculum looks like.
"We're always going over a lot of different health topics," Deming said. "Whether it is, drug usage, or alcohol use, we're able to expand on topics that are personal."
Deming said that the program makes the learning feel more real and falls right in line with what she tries to teach her students in class.
“Sometimes when there’s textbooks or things online that we’re required to teach, it doesn’t necessarily hit the mark," Deming said. "So, when this can be applied and kids know this is real and this is happening around us. This can be a resource for them that can maybe help themselves or somebody they might know."
Plans are already in the works to grow the program with visits to Senior and Skyview High, as well as some middle schools in the future. Kuhns said she hopes to make an impact on students wherever they go.
"We just want to help them go to somebody safe who they can talk to and get help," Kuhns said.
And Catt said that even just having a conversation about a difficult topic can help students.
"If we can bring light to what's happening and tell students that they matter and that we believe them, then that's super powerful," Catt said.