Take it from Me with Kimberly Ritter

Fighter.  Tough-Edged Princess.  Human trafficking crusader.

By Diane Kline

Kimberly Ritter photo by Justin Barr

For professional meeting-planner Kimberly Ritter, a client request opened her eyes to the cruel world of sex trafficking and turned her into an advocate for its victims. The client – a group of nuns planning a conference in St. Louis – would only book a hotel that had signed the Child Protection Code of Conduct. This requires that the staff be trained to identify and stop human trafficking taking place on the premise.

As she and her colleagues, Molly Hackett and Jane Quinn (owners of Nix Conference and Meeting Management), learned more about the ravaged lives of young women and men sold into prostitution, they could have turned a blind eye. Instead, they are opening the eyes of parents, young people and even the authorities through an organization they founded called The Exchange Initiative.

Honored locally and nationally, Ritter is the winner of the 2012 FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award. A wife and mother of children ages 17 to 25, her journey has changed the lives of victims and transformed her personally.

I am not on this earth to live a life of houses, cars and vacations

You couldn’t have told me 13 years ago that I would be on a social justice crusade. The first time I saw a girl online and recognized her hotel room, I worked with the police to help free her. I didn’t know I could do that. If I try to pull away, it calls me back. So, I’ve surrendered. This is now part of who I am.

For months, I cried every night on my way home

I was tormented that people do this to other people. The problem was so widespread. Then, the nuns taught me to ask, “Did I help just one person today?” That’s all I need to do. I’ve learned that if you poke a hole, the light will come through.  And if you poke another hole, the light gets brighter.

If there’s a computer in your daughter’s room, she is at risk

Girls are not snatched off the street, but are lured through social media. As young as 12 years old, they come from nice families living in cities and suburbs. They’re contacted by pimps (that may be the soccer coach or your neighbor) who promise modeling careers and celebrity lifestyles. The victims willingly meet their traffickers who quickly turn them into drug addicts. Then the girls can be held captive, forced into sex for drugs or threatened to stay.

Everyone can fight the sex trade with the Traffickcam app

Since the victims’ online photos are often taken in hotel rooms, we created Traffickcam, a free app that helps pinpoint where they’re being held. Citizens can upload photos of their hotel rooms and when authorities are searching for a victim, an algorithm identifies the hotel based on the bedspread pattern or artwork or even dimensions of the furniture. Now every business person, vacationer or soccer mom at the Super 8 for her kid’s soccer tournament can fight the sex trade.

Parents need to monitor social medial 24/7

Parents think, “This won’t happen to my children because we’ve raised them right.”  But predators are clever. Teach your children: “Unless you can see somebody face-to-face and shake his hand, you do not know who this person is.” Know everything about the apps your kids use. Go into their messages, and read everything up and down. And take away their devices whenever you’re concerned.

I appreciate life more since I’ve seen how terrible life can be

I’ve become harder. I’ve learned not to emote in front of a victim. No tears. Just face someone with understanding, not sadness or judgment. It’s a passion to talk to parents and young people about what’s happening. Even my children help by going to my presentations and fighting the fight.

My friends call me The Bulldog

I don’t give up. I may just be a meeting-planner, but I can change lives. Friends would say, “This is what she was meant to do. She’s a little rough around the edges and a little tougher than a girl should be for the princess she is.”