Human trafficking continues to be a major concern in Central Florida as the Sunshine State stands near the top when it comes to the number of cases.
Some argue, however, that the the subject doesn’t get enough attention.
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Jill Bolander Cohen never wanted to be the face of human trafficking but, in her words, it was a calling.
Bolander Cohen founded The Lifeboat Project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing support services to victims of human trafficking. Much of her effort goes toward raising awareness.
During a recent speaking engagement at a crowded banquet room at Kissimmee Bay Country Club, she explained that human trafficking could happen to any family.
“When I started doing this, nobody even knew what it was. They just thought it was something that happened somewhere else,” Bolander Cohen said.
She founded The Lifeboat Project in 2011.
“I didn’t want to start my own nonprofit,” Bolander Cohen said. “I was with Presbyterian Women and had gone to Washington D.C. I ended up advocating on Capitol Hill for the Violence Against Women Act. That’s when I found out about the problem we have here.”
“God called me to do this work,” Bolander Cohen said. “I fought it for about a year and a half. I didn’t want to do this.”
As Bolander Cohen learned more about the problem, she realized few were offering services and housing for adult women and their children. Today, she says the nonprofit is one of the few nationwide that provides wrap-around services and housing for this demographic.
“They’re a wonderful group of people. Just incredible. They’re literally survivors.” said Bolander Cohen, adding that survivors just want someone to understand them, believe their stories and to move forward.
The Lifeboat Project is there to guide them.
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The Lifeboat Project partners with Valencia College to offer classes. Many in the program have made the President’s and Dean’s list.
“Yes, it’s a horrible situation. But they’re so gifted and so talented. We give them an environment to thrive in,” she said.
The nonprofit owns two transitional homes, a 14-bed safe house and a corporate office on 4 acres that provides space for group meetings.
Bolander Cohen and The Lifeboat project were nominated for the News 6 Getting Results Award by Lifeboat Project community ambassador LaTanya Newell.
“She’s changed lives. She’s touching and changing lives and making a difference in the community,” Newell said. “They’re getting results by continuing to educate and provide the resources that are needed.”
Will and Jess Velez were featured guests at the aforementioned luncheon. The couple spoke about helping someone who was being trafficked and how they were able to recognize the clues after hearing a presentation similar to the one Bolander Cohen gave.
“One day I showed up at a business luncheon just like you today,” Will Velez said from the podium. “I never knew one day we would be a part of a human trafficking case.”
The couple told the story of a mother who who reached out to them for help. She was stuck in an abusive relationship and her daughter was being trafficked.
The Velez family knew to call The Lifeboat Project for assistance.
“Before I knew it, we had a whole team to help this individual,” Will Velez remembered. “They had all the resources and they knew how to deal with it. I wasn’t alone.”
“I’ve only seen this in movies. I would have never thought we would be dealing with a situation right then and there,” said Jessica Velez, revealing that the family was now safe. “Just to see the look on that little girl’s face to know, ‘I’m finally home. I’m safe.’ It was immediate release for her.”
Moments like that are why Bolander Cohen says she will continue to speak to groups, raise awareness and do what she can to help survivors transition to success.
“I’m a bulldog and people know I am. I don’t quit. People need to understand that this is happening. It can happen to your own children, your grandchildren, and we want to prevent it,” she said.
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