In 1992, she was just 11 years old, but even then, Ashleigh Chapman knew there was something terribly wrong when the systems that were in place to help the vulnerable did them more harm than good.
That year, her parents took in three siblings, ages 2, 5 and 8, who had experienced severe abuse. As she watched them try to navigate the welfare system to somehow bring healing to those children, Chapman knew it shouldn’t be so hard.
“I began to draw on a large sheet of paper how people should be working together to protect people in harm’s way,” she recalled recently.
By the time her parents found a safe place for the siblings, Chapman was convinced God had called her to reform these systems of care for the oppressed and vulnerable, and that she needed a law degree to do it.
Today that little girl, born an old soul, has grown up to be the 38-year-old president and CEO of the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice, a global nonprofit that supports some 7,500 organizations working to end human trafficking and protect vulnerable populations worldwide.
I hope you didn’t miss that — 7,500 organizations are getting the help they need to do the work they do best because of one little girl’s determination to change things. That’s extraordinary and a reminder that God can use whomever he chooses so long as the heart is willing.
And so come Thursday, Chapman will gather with her partners to celebrate that work and the people who get it done at their annual gala at the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta.
Had it not been for her faith, none of it might have been possible.
“One night, I got really convicted that we were on this planet to pursue a calling beyond ourselves,” Chapman told me in a backward glance. “God opened my eyes to my purpose three weeks later when those three little kids came into our home.”
RELATED | Ever tried to imagine what it’s like to be exploited for sex?
Eight years later in 2000, Chapman graduated from high school, but just two weeks after enrolling at Belmont University, the Tennessee native began experiencing symptoms indicating she might have a terminal illness. She had 18 months to live, doctors told her.
Chapman decided then to withdraw from school and instead work for a nonprofit helping at-risk youths.
Six months later, the symptoms had dissipated. Doctors told her it was all a mistake. She was fine.
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In 2008, she went back to school, completing the remaining credit hours in just one year and graduating summa cum laude from Tennessee Technological University.
She was enrolled at Regent University School of Law in Virginia when she launched the Center for Global Justice, an initiative of the law school to equip students to become justice advocates for the oppressed and vulnerable.
With the help of 25 law interns, Chapman began researching “everyone on the planet working to end human trafficking.”
Communities and countries were working on pieces of the puzzle, but didn’t understand fully what they needed to do — together — to effectively end human trafficking and protect the vulnerable.
Not only did she see gaps in the system, she saw how she could help, and began dreaming of ways to build a global network of justice advocates, and thus accelerate the impact of the entire movement.
RELATED | Not just a billboard: Molested at 12. Sold by Dad. Raped 8 times a day.
In 2013, Chapman left the center and incorporated the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice, supporting nonprofits, government agencies, faith-based organizations, and more from all over the world.
Joe Roslansky, a DataStax software sales executive who has been working with the alliance since 2016, said he chose to join AFRJ based on the work it does every day to save lives and fight for the freedom of others.
“The impact of human trafficking crosses all boundaries and creates an injustice to those trapped by the perpetrators of this dark, evil crime,” he said.
You see, most of us view trafficking as a single and separate issue, if we see it at all. Chapman, though, has always seen many issues linked together. Children aging out of the foster care system without support. Individuals struggling with homelessness or poverty. Runaway and homeless youths. Refugees. And more.
“It’s really all one connected story,” Chapman said. “Human trafficking is the darkest consequence of leaving people in such vulnerable places that they can be exploited in this way. And many victims of human trafficking often have compounding vulnerabilities present in their life. Which means that, any strategy to combat human trafficking head-on must also account for meeting the needs of the vulnerable populations that are being exploited. Our goal is to pull the whole world of people together who care about this cause so that we can accelerate the end of trafficking.”
These are just some of the ways the alliance is doing that.
- Freedom Council, launched five years ago at the Chick-fil-A headquarters, is perhaps the largest group of executives working together to bring business solutions to the fight against human trafficking. Members hail from companies like Anthem, IBM, Deloitte, WellStar, Delta and Chick-fil-A.
- The Hire Hope program, created with the help of Randstad USA, provides career readiness training, paid apprenticeships and job placement opportunities for survivors of exploitation and human trafficking. Chapman and Randstad extended the opportunity for new companies to participate in the program at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce earlier this week and at the gala.
- The Student Council, birthed in 2018 in Atlanta. This group of high school students is passionate about taking action now and becoming lifelong justice advocates. They've created a Student Toolkit and are mobilizing their local schools to take action across the country.
- The Every Day Heroes Challenge, which offers an hourlong digital course designed to give people the critical knowledge and skills they need to not just spot human trafficking but know how to respond. Since its launch this past year, over 1,000 people have completed the course. The goal for 2020? Teach 1 million.
In 1992, Ashleigh Chapman was an 11-year-old girl with grown-up worries and dreams about how to help abused and neglected people in society.
“I just kept thinking, this could’ve been prevented and it shouldn’t be this hard,” she said.
And so she did what she could to help. All these years later, she still is. That’s not only worth celebrating, it’s a good example for the rest of us to follow.
Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at email@example.com.