Metro Detroit-based Sparrow Freedom Project fights human trafficking through education and awareness

SOUTH LYON, Mich. – A local college professor and a South Lyon mother are teaming up to fight human trafficking in Metro Detroit.

Human trafficking is a major issue across Metro Detroit and is commonly regarded as the second-largest criminal enterprise after drugs. Together, Anita Hoepner and David Manville are raising awareness on the issue of human trafficking in Michigan and how to identify and report it.

Hoepner is a 36-year-old mother of two and a victim of childhood sexual abuse. She has been taking the pain of surviving abuse and turning it into something proactive.

"Something I wish would have happened was like if there was a school program, or if someone would have brought something up," Hoepner said. "This could happen to you, and this is what you need to do."

To help others in the fight against human trafficking, she joined with Manville, a full-time lecturer for Eastern Michigan University's social work program. Manville teaches a class on human trafficking that's so popular, there's a waitlist.

"We just have to teach people what to look for, how to identify it, where to report it," Manville said.

Many in the class are studying social work, while others are interested in learning about this growing crime and some have more personal connections to this kind of abuse.

"I was surprised when I found out how many trafficking survivors were here on campus," said Megan Ford, a senior at EMU.

"I want to learn more about the signs to look for," said Katie Young, another senior at EMU. "And how I go about asking questions and helping them out more."

"It happens in middle schools, it happens in high schools," Manville said, "and when people say 'Why should I really be bothered with it?' what they don't understand is that these are somebody's daughters, nieces, somebody's sister that's disappeared."

Together, Hoepner and Manville formed the Sparrow Freedom Project to raise awareness and money to help victims. Hoepner uses her contacts in the community, and combined with Manville's knowledge of human trafficking, they have been educating people in their neighborhood area through special events. One such event was held at the South Lyon Library on April 26.

"I just thought that I knew very little about human trafficking and the human labor aspect of things," said South Lyon resident Kathleen Stankus. "I just wanted to find out a little bit more about it."

Those who attend the events learn how common human trafficking is in Metro Detroit. They're taught how to recognize the signs and ways they can help. Each event is getting larger and larger crowds as a the result of the unlikely pairing of a mom and college professor, but that pairing that is making a difference. 

"Having him as a mentor has just been incredible," Hoepner said. "We kind of are working on this together. It is a very special project."

The next Sparrow Freedom Project event will be held at the Salem/South Lyon Library, located at 9800 Pontiac Trail, on May 17 from 7 to 9 p.m. It features a free educational presentation, "How our daily lives contribute to worldwide slavery."

Following that, there will be a Father's Day event held at Witch's Hat Brewery, located at 601 S. Lafayette Street, on June 17 from noon to 6 p.m. This event costs $5 to enter, but fathers get in for free and will also receive their first beer for free. There will be carnival games, kids crafts, food trucks, live music, a magic show, bouncy houses and more. Funds raised will help develop youth empowerment, prevention and mentoring programs, as well as help Sparrow Freedom Project continue educating communities and professionals. In-kind items will be collected to provide basic/toiletry needs for survivors of human trafficking in the Metro Detroit area.

About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.