Despite the pandemic, the tragedy of modern day slavery continues, and sadly many of its victims are children.
In the face of these huge challenges, The Brave Bear Trust is working to stop even more children falling victim to exploitation.
Rob James interviews Heather Lewis, CEO of this ground-breaking initiative.
Tell me Heather, what exactly is the Brave Bear Trust?
Heather: There are more people living in slavery right now, more than at any other time in history, with an estimated 45 million globally and 100,000 in the UK. Brave Bear Trust seeks to help keep children everywhere safe from exploitation and to achieve this by engaging, educating, empowering and equipping children aged 8 to 10, alongside their supporting adults, so they learn how to keep themselves and others safe.
How did it all begin?
Heather: Brave Bear Trust was established in 2020 following the publication of a children's story book entitled Brave. The book was written when I was raising awareness among schoolchildren while working for Red Community, a charity which exists to combat modern slavery in Wales.
I obviously wanted to address the subject appropriately and sensitively and so, inspired by Toy Story, I 'brought to life' the coffee roasting machine used at 'Manumit' coffee roasters, which employs survivors of trafficking. I explained how coffee is made from crop to cup, how it is important to pay people for the work they do, and that we need to treat people fairly and with value. As a result of this I conceived the idea of writing a book about 'Rory' the coffee roaster.
Why the bear? And why Brave?
Heather: Not long after exploring the idea of writing a book, I was introduced to Bryn, an ex British police officer, who had worked for a charity investigating human trafficking in the Dominican Republic. He told me that after one particularly poignant rescue operation, a young girl was asked if there was anything from home the team could collect for her. The child had experienced unspeakable suffering and would never be returning to this house again. After thinking for a while, she asked for her blue bear. Moments later she was driven away from the scene with an old, dirty, dog-eared and damaged teddy sat snuggly on her lap as she clung to it for comfort.
Bryn kindly agreed to let me use this story as inspiration for the book, and so 'Rory' and this bear we named 'Brave' became quite the dynamic duo. I was also keen to highlight the little girl's bravery as well as her teddy bear's courageous part in helping her to find freedom from her life of exploitation. As a result, the story was called Brave and a fantastic team came together to write the book, including you Rob, for which we are eternally grateful!
The age group seems rather young. Is it really needed?
Heather: Yes! For the first time ever in 2020, more children than adults were identified as potential victims of slavery in the UK. Heartbreakingly, a child as young as 10 months has been identified as a potential victim of modern slavery, and children as young as 7 are targeted as they are below the age of criminal responsibility. So, opening up a safe, sensitive and age-appropriately conversation alongside trusted adults at a young age could save children from this horrendous reality.
We believe this is especially important before it's too late, with an increase in teenagers being targeted and criminally exploited. Additionally it can equip them to keep others safe too - as they grow up to be volunteers, parents, carers, police officers, shop keepers or even Prime minister, they carry this awareness with them for life.
What do you offer as a trust?
Heather: We offer our Brave book which contains an engaging and beautifully illustrated story, which shares a story of domestic servitude and shows children just how exploitation can occur. The book also contains guidance for any trusted adult reading the book alongside the child, as well as discussion questions and follow up actions and ideas to show the things that are being done to help, and to encourage them to believe that they can be of help too.
As well as the book, we offer lesson plans, a wider curriculum, children's church material, a YouTube version of the story being read and very soon, a free 45 minute online accredited training module for adults. We're also really excited that the book has been adapted for the US and will be piloted there this summer as part of a project working with vulnerable children.
Do you have any encouraging stories to tell?
Heather: Yes, we hear of survivors growing in confidence and hope as they are given freedom and support! As a trust, we're delighted when we receive feedback that a class of children now know how to keep themselves safe from exploitation and that they have identified a trusted adult they can talk to should they have any concerns.
How can churches and individual believers help you?
Heather: We would obviously value prayer. This is such a dark injustice that we're trying to expose, and we're trying to bring light into what is often such a hopeless situation. Prayer for peace and resources would be great, and here's a huge prayer: that every child aged 8 to 10 across the UK, and wherever God takes 'Brave', will know how to protect themselves and others.
We would love people to visit our website and take a look at what we're doing and then buy a book for a child, a school or church and share our resources with them. We would be thrilled if people spent 45 minutes participating in our online training module so that they can be equipped to prevent exploitation as well as support potential victims. In addition to this, we are looking for those who will help us financially as we seek to continue and grow our work. The initial year's funding, which was a generous gift, ends in August and in order to continue to employ a member of staff we still need to find a donor who is willing and able to help us.
Why should anyone see this as a priority given the pressure on everyone's time and resources?
Heather: God calls us to fight injustice, to speak up for those who have no voice. There are at least 45.8 million people in our world, and undoubtedly some within a 10 mile radius of your nearest town who are being exploited right now. The Scriptures show us God consistently rescuing people from slavery and exploitation, and Jesus has mandated to show compassion and empathy and to battle inequality and abuse. Exploitation thrives in darkness; we have a responsibility to expose it, to pray for its abolition, and to play our God-given part in raising awareness and bringing freedom and hope to those in distress.
What has been your greatest encouragement to date?
Heather: Personally, seeing survivors of trafficking find hope and restoration and hearing stories of them coming to know Jesus. For us as a trust, being able to share Brave at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and seeing the potential to utilise Brave globally, should that be God's plan and the resources arrive to enable it.
What are you hoping for over the next 12 to 24 months?
Heather: I hope that children all over the UK will engage with Brave and know how to keep themselves and others safe, that adults will be equipped with our training, and that churches will respond to the Biblical mandate to play their part in fighting exploitation. I hope that we can take 'Brave' beyond the UK, that it will be utilised across the US and adapted for countries where exploitation is overwhelmingly prevalent. I hope that children will see hope and light as they engage with 'Brave' the bear, his sidekick 'Rory', and the even braver Bella.