On September 28, a Sk8 for Freedom event took place in Spring Park to raise awareness against sex trafficking and help educate youth about the potential dangers they face from potential sexual predators.
According to organizer Barbara Owens, the dangers of sexual predators are very local and very real. Two days before her daughter got out of school, her class had a field trip to Spring Park in Heber Springs. "I got a text message from her telling me there's a man there watching them," said Owens. "She said it was freaking her out and making her nervous so I told her to get to a teacher right away. Apparently this guy was five feet away from them and he wasn't even supposed to be near children because he was a convicted sex offender." The police were called and the man was apprehended in front of the children in Spring Park. "It scared them to death," said Owens.
Heber Springs resident Kathy Bryan spoke at the event. Bryan was abducted at age 15 and prostituted for two years of her life. Bryan waited 28 years to tell her story, but now she uses her tragic experience to help educate about the dangers facing young people from predators.
Bryan was born in New York in a town much like Heber Springs. When her mother remarried, she moved to another small town in Virginia. "It does happen in small towns," said Bryan. "It happens in Arkansas."
In Virginia, she met a friend and would walk to her house to study. Over the course of a month or two, she met a man as she would walk to her friend's house that began striking up conversations with her. Bryan assumed the man lived in the neighborhood. "It went from a casual 'hi' to long conversations to the point that I thought we were dating," said Bryan. Over the next few months, the man would take her to dinner and they would hang out at his house with nothing out of the ordinary happening to give Bryan any indication that something was amiss. One evening, however, that all changed. They were at his house, like any other night when, "out of nowhere another man comes in," said Bryan. "For the next couple of hours, they brutally assaulted me." Bryan attempted to escape when she had a free moment alone, but was caught. She had unwittingly become another victim in the abusive sex trafficking trade.
Bryan spent the next couple of years living at home and giving no indication to her family or anyone that she was being used as a sexual commodity at night. The man threatened to do the same to her younger sister and that sense of protection for her sibling was one of the prime factors in her silence during those years. Bryan was to suffer through 2 years as the victim of a well-organized sex trafficking ring. She was finally able to escape the nightmare when the man that originally victimized and trapped her abruptly decided to let her go before she was shipped off to a different city to become part of a national sex trafficking network.
Page 2 of 2 - Bryan buried this part of her life until 2011. "I never wanted to talk about this," said Bryan. "I planned on dying without telling anyone. Then I began getting flashbacks and other memories started flooding back." Bryan, now 48, has taken this tragedy and uses her story to help educate young people about the dangers that are out there. Small rural towns are fertile ground for sex trafficking networks and not just the nationally organized groups. Oftentimes, the sex trafficking is local and many times involves individuals using their own family members. "Many people assume that because a normal looking house has a lot of unusual traffic that drugs are the reason," said Bryan. "While that is sometimes the case, a lot of times something more sinister is happening inside. Sometimes the traffic is for sex."
Bryan encouraged anyone that has been subjected to sexual exploitation to talk to someone. "Many times you're afraid to talk to your family and sometimes you just have a family that won't listen," said Bryan. "And sometimes you can't because it's your family that's doing it. If that's the case, find someone else and talk to him or her. Talk to me about it if you want. The worse thing you can do is think it's your fault and keep silent."