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Giving Hope

Megan Lundstrom

Megan Lunstrom. Photo by Elaine Appleton Grant

December 01, 2016

UNC student Megan Lundstrom knows too well the nightmare of sex trafficking — and she’s founded a nonprofit to help children and women who are victims

By Elaine Appleton Grant

As she entered her final semester at UNC in late August, Megan Lundstrom didn’t have much money to spare. She’s a married mom of three kids, 12, 9 and 1; a scholarship student; and an entrepreneur carefully nurturing a newborn organization.

With the little extra pocket money she can scare up, she buys gifts for people she’s never met — women she’s connected with over Facebook, women who appreciate the snack bars, lipstick and bubble bath she sends them.

These women are members of a very large and almost entirely underground club — one no one wants to join. Lundstrom, 30, calls this club alternately “the life” and “the game.” These Facebook friends are human trafficking victims working as prostitutes, most of whom never see the money they make. Lundstrom sends them gifts, she says, because “Everybody in their life wants something from them all the time. They don’t believe people are nice just to be nice.”

Lundstrom ought to know. Until a few years ago, she too was a member of this club, a captive of a life she never wanted to live. Today, she directs Free Our Girls, a Greeley-based nonprofit calling attention to the tragedy of sex trafficking in northern Colorado and helping rescue victims.

Impressive Numbers
Using a grant from the Weld Women’s Fund, Lundstrom this summer provided human trafficking awareness and prevention training to 200 Greeley-area teachers, 150 Weld County Department of Human Services intake technicians and case workers, and 125 probation officers in Weld and Larimer counties.
Free Our Girls directly helps trafficked women. The number of victims the organization works with went from 300 in August 2015 to nearly 1,200 just a year later and continues to grow.
Lundstrom uses what she’s learned in her finance courses at UNC to publish a bimonthly electronic newsletter dedicated to financial literacy. At the time of this writing,
it had 150 active readers.

The women who receive her small gifts are a handful of the hundreds Lundstrom connects with via social media, trying to help them see their own worth and escape “the life.” Lundstrom’s also on a mission to explode myths about sex trafficking. One fact she wants to drive home: it can happen to anyone.

Because it happened to her. At 19 — a graduate of Greeley Central High School, a first-chair violinist who’d won a four-year college scholarship — Lundstrom became pregnant with her son. Instead of heading off to college, she married. She had another child and spent five years with a husband she says was an abusive alcoholic. After leaving him, she found herself virtually penniless, striving to get a degree in early childhood education, caring for two young children and relying on child support that came only sporadically.
In the midst of financial stress, Lundstrom one day met an attractive man driving a fine car. He seduced her by promising to love and care for her children. And he suggested she could become financially independent by working in dance clubs and working as an escort. When her car broke down and she had no way to get to school or work, she succumbed. “I had two little mouths to feed,” she says. “It all piled on at once and made me feel trapped … This guy masqueraded as my boyfriend. Before I knew it, I was caught up in something that spiraled out of control.”
Little did she know that her “boyfriend” was, in fact, a pimp. His methods, preying on vulnerable young women, promising love and money — are a part of a formula wielded all over the country against children as young as 11 years old.
Lundstrom’s harrowing experience is typical. Her pimp fluctuated between promises of love and threats of violence — particularly when she tried to leave.
“He threatened to tell my parents what I was doing and that my children would be taken away,” she says. “I lived in this bubble of terror for four years.”
And inculcated into a culture of prostitution, she became convinced that “the game” was all she was good for. She finally escaped from a second pimp in 2012, but it took Lundstrom more than a year of integrating back into her family and getting treatment for PTSD before she could return to a safer life.
Lundstrom was finally ready to get her bachelor’s degree.
Being from Greeley, she says that when it came time to find a school that had a great business program, UNC’s “was a no-brainer.”
Entering her second year, she applied for and won the Reisher Scholarship, a need- and merit-based scholarship administered by The Denver Foundation. Funded by the Reisher Family Foundation, the scholarship goes to rising sophomores and to transfer students who demonstrate academic ability, community involvement and financial need.
In 2014, using the business skills she was learning at UNC in service of her passion, Lundstrom founded Free Our Girls.
There isn’t any empirical data on the amount of human trafficking that goes on in northeastern Colorado, but there’s no doubt that it exists.
In May 2015, she raised awareness of the need to address human trafficking in Weld and Larimer counties by showing members of the Greeley Police Department how much demand there was for prostitutes.
She published a fake ad on an online sex trade forum for a fictitious 21-year-old woman who was “new to the business” and looking for “classy gentlemen” in Greeley. In an hour, the disposable cell phone she purchased for the demonstration received 18 text messages and 15 calls, all presumably from interested men in the Greeley, Fort Collins and Loveland areas.
Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner told her that he was shocked by the response her ad generated, especially considering that the demonstration took place from noon–1 p.m. on a Monday.
That fall, Weld County’s first human trafficking trial ended in a not-guilty decision, but in August 2016 a pimp was found guilty on all 32 charges he faced on trafficking-related charges. A few weeks later, another pimp was found guilty of eight of the nine charges he faced.

Originally published by The Denver Foundation in Give Magazine, Summer 2016. Reprinted with permission and gratitude. Elaine Appleton Grant is a freelance journalist living in Denver.

The Reisher Scholars Program

Instituted in 2001 by Firstbank founder Roger Reisher, his wife, Margaret, and their two daughters. Grants of $4,000 to $11,000 per year beginning in sophomore year. Six participating universities in Colorado. Between 2001 and 2015, more than 1,100 students received $15.7 million in Reisher scholarships.

For more information or to apply

How Reisher Scholars Make a Difference

In addition to receiving scholarship funds, Reisher Scholars also team up in cohorts at the six Colorado universities they attend — and they can apply for project grants of up to $2,000 to build a stronger cohort or provide service to the community.

In 2015, Lundstrom and her cohort used a Reisher grant to bring to UNC “Empathy Week,” a series of events designed to familiarize the public with human trafficking. Lundstrom says they plan to expand Empathy Week in March 2017 using another Reisher grant.

This year, Lundstrom also used a grant from the Weld Women’s Fund to offer human trafficking awareness and prevention training to local school district educators, social workers and probation officers to recognize the signs of trafficking.

Lundstrom, who graduates Dec. 10, 2016, says she’s looking forward to having more time for her Free Our Girls efforts. She’s going to continue her awareness workshops and presentations, and plans to start local support groups for girls and women who’ve experienced commercial sexual exploitation. She also hopes to publish a book about her experiences that includes an intervention method that Free Our Girls has successfully used to reach victims of “the game.”

And while she’s devoted to ending trafficking in northern Colorado, Lundstrom’s also slowly, one small gift and conversation at a time, helping her Facebook friends — victims all across the country — to get strong enough to escape their traffickers, as she did.

“These women have seen me leave probation, go back to college, [deal with] PTSD. They’ve seen me have my third child, do my senior year and take on speaking engagements,” she says. “I want to give them hope that there’s a life better than anything they could imagine on the other side.”