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The Interview: Theresa Flores

“Everyone thinks slavery was abolished. No. It was just transformed.” For many years, people had no idea of what happened to Theresa Flores. In fact, if they had, they wouldn’t have had a word for it. When Flores was 15, she was a regular, all-American high school girl, living in Michigan. One fateful evening after [...]
Jeni Ruisch

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“Everyone thinks slavery was abolished. No. It was just transformed.”

For many years, people had no idea of what happened to Theresa Flores.

In fact, if they had, they wouldn’t have had a word for it.

When Flores was 15, she was a regular, all-American high school girl, living in Michigan. One fateful evening after school, she was drugged, raped, and photographed by a classmate. This young man blackmailed Flores with the photographs, using them, as well as threats against her and her family, as fuel to force her into an increasingly nightmarish cycle of traumatic servitude. For two years, Flores was bound into involuntary prostitution. She suffered repeated harrowing violence by night, while hiding the abuse from her friends and family by day. Her trafficker worked within a network of other young people and adults, exploiting women and girls for profit. Only when Flores’s father took a job far away and her family moved, was she able to finally escape.

Flores was able to find the strength to continue on, go to college, and begin a career in social work. All while quietly carrying the secret pain of the still un-named ordeal she survived. At a social work conference, looking for information with the intention of helping to relate to the refugees and immigrants on her caseload, Flores was presented with the concept and definition of human trafficking. Never was a set of words so powerful as when it gave a name to the horrors Flores had faced, and let her know that she was not alone. With this revelation came a heavy sense of responsibility. Flores immediately came forward and offered to lend her voice to help others by testifying before congress, speaking at conferences, and educating everyone from politicians to the public.

Her tireless efforts only grew when she discovered the lack of knowledge of this crisis. During one such trip, she found herself in Detroit, having sworn she would never return to Michigan. Catapulted back to the darkest time in her life, she searched for a way to connect with the lost women and girls that she knew were out there. How could she reach them in their bleakest moments?

And then it came to her. The hotels. The bathrooms. The only time the trafficked women are alone. Flores began the SOAP initiative (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution). To those tiny bars of hotel soap, Flores and her army of volunteers affix labels that are emblazoned with the phone number to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. A tiny light in the darkness. After eight years, SOAP has distributed over a million bars with potentially life saving resources printed on them.

Affixed in their situations by drug addiction, coercion, and abuse; trafficked people are stripped of all agency. Whether they are held for manual labor or sex, they are used for a profit by their traffickers. Make no mistake, this is slavery in the modern day. Like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth before her—Flores lends her experiences and indefatigable spirit to lift others out of servitude.

This is a modern issue, a women’s issue, a human rights issue. Flores and other abolitionists are still very necessary, and still very hard at work.

A huge part of your work involves repeatedly reliving and retelling this traumatic experience you had as a kid. What effect does it have on you? And also, what effect does it have on your story, and the way you view it?

[I do] take a physical and emotional hit every time I do it. But it’s something I’ve chosen to do, so it’s my responsibility, because I’ve said yes. Because there are so many others that can’t do it, because they haven’t found their voice. I’ve gotten my voice back. I’ve gotten good counseling, I’ve gotten degrees. I’m healed enough that I can do this. I think that’s what makes an activist. When you’re very passionate about something, you push beyond the emotional damage to try to make this world a better place.

How do you deal with disbelief?

There’s disbelief of my story that I have to deal with sometimes. There’s disbelief that this happens in the United States. It can be so negative and so hard, that you can understand why there’s not a lot of survivors that are speaking out. Like with the #metoo movement, you see a lot of women coming forward, and the number one thing I read on Facebook is ‘Well, why did she wait 40 years?’ You see this with rape culture, where people tend to not believe you because you waited so long. It’s like ‘Do you understand what it’s like to go through something like that?’ When one person says ‘me too,’ it gives the rest of us permission to find our voice again. It empowers us.

How do you think people like Roy Moore and Donald Trump affect the lives of regular people, even though they are removed by class and by distance? Do you think there’s a connection to this type of behavior, and what happens to the women that you work with?

It’s not politics, or political affiliation, or what religious affiliation you have. I think it has to do with these are men. And that’s the bottom line. We’re tolerating men doing this. When women get together and say “We’re not gonna tolerate this anymore,” that’s when we find our power, and that’s when we take it back. Human trafficking is a women’s rights issue. We have to start arresting the men, and seeing the women as victims, and not criminals. Politically, this has been made socially acceptable. Even though it’s illegal, until we as a society say it is socially unacceptable to sell another person, we’re not going to change anything. And that takes men and women to do.

Do you think that the opioid crisis overlaps with human trafficking?

If you have a drug problem in your community—you have a human trafficking problem. It goes hand-in-hand. If you have a trafficking problem, you have a drug problem. One way it goes is the trafficker, or the pimp, whatever you want to call him, will have the woman, and get her addicted to drugs to be able to control her. He’ll say “Go out and do this, make me this amount of money, and when you come back, I’ll give you more drugs.” After a while, he kicks her to the curb because she becomes too addicted. And then you see her on the streets, and she’s a druggie, and she’ll turn tricks to be able to get the money to do the drugs. But people don’t look and see “How did she get there?” “What happened to her in the beginning to be in that spot?” Because nobody wants to be in that spot.

Does this affect a lot of immigrants?

It does. There was the egg farm bust. [In Marion, where people from Central America were being used for labor.] Salvation Army and Human Trafficking Task Force were involved in those. There was a big one with a massage parlor with locations in Powell and Worthington. There were 19 Asian women being trafficked. So now you have 19 women that don’t speak English. Where are you going to put them? What are you going to do? There’s a lot of planning that takes place, even beforehand. And then getting them the services. A rescue is pretty intense.

Once you get these women, can you then follow the chain back and get the person who is selling them?

That’s what the police are mostly concerned with, getting the trafficker, getting the guy at the top. So they can potentially stop it from happening to other girls. We’re concerned with the victim, getting her whole again. And then you’ve got the middle ground. Who are the people that are buying her? What if we went for that middle person? Cause no one is going for that middle person. If we made a major statement saying “We’re gonna catch you if you’re buying somebody,” it would really stop the demand. And that’s my passion. If we started to go for the middle dog, then we could really stop it. You have to convince law enforcement officers, and you have to convince prosecuting attorneys. It’s tough to convince them to go for the John.

What’s problematic about events like The Super Bowl and The Arnold?

SOAP is centered around large events. Any time there is an event with a lot of people coming to a town—it doesn’t have to be for sports—human trafficking will quadruple. The reason we know that is because of backpage.com. I would go on [the site] a week before an event, the week during, and a week after, and count up the number of ads of women for sale. It was always quadruple. Even for things like a concert, even for things like The Columbus Marathon. When you say The Super Bowl has more trafficking, it’s not saying The Super Bowl, or the Columbus Marathon is bad, it’s just that this is what organically happens. Same with the Detroit Auto Show. It’s a two-week event and a million people come to Detroit for that. Mostly men, and a lot from other countries, where this is legal. So we see a huge spike. There’s usually 800 girls for sale during the Detroit Auto Show per night.

Besides large events, what role does Columbus’s geography play in human trafficking?

Any time you’re on an interstate where other interstates cross—any time you have lots of universities or casinos or truck stops. Geography affects how many risk factors you’ve got. If you have any of those in a geographical area, you’re going to have more trafficking. Minnesota is a huge trafficking state, and no one would ever think of it. But you have a lot of truckers going through there. Most people wouldn’t think Ohio…

What was the in-between time like for you? Thinking back to when you were able to get away. Before you went into social work, got degrees, and were able to put a name to trafficking, and start your work.

There was a lot of years in between there. Gosh, it’s harder for me to think about those in-between years than what I do now, which is so hard. I want to say it was being a zombie. Never knowing the word of what happened to me, what it was called. That was hard. Because it wasn’t “rape,” it was more than one guy, it was more than one time. I got into a very domestically violent marriage, because I didn’t feel worthy of anything else. I never thought anybody else would ask me to marry them. I thought “This is the best I’m ever gonna get,” so I married someone I shouldn’t have, and couldn’t get out for many, many years. Luckily, I got three great children out of it. That’s why I went into social work. I wanted to help somebody, even though nobody helped me. It starts with the smallest little ripple.

What does shame mean to human trafficking?

If you asked a hundred survivors, what’s their number one emotion that they have felt, it would be either shame or guilt. Which is really sad. Especially when they didn’t do this to themselves, it always started off with someone doing it to them. It’s associated with the word prostitute. I don’t ever consider myself having been a prostitute, but if you look at the definition, it’s like ‘I guess I was.’ It’s hard because survivors tend to internalize it. ‘I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that.’ Similar to rape victims. That’s a hard thing to overcome. To me, the negative word is shame, but the positive word is worthiness. You need to make a survivor feel worthy, and when you do, that shame will go away.

Fittingly, January is national human trafficking awareness month. Those wishing to assist the cause can attend the next SOAP outreach in Columbus, 2.17 at the Martin De Porres Center. For more, visit soapproject.org. If you see someone who looks like they need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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People

Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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People

Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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People

I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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