By turning pillowcases into dresses, a group in Irondequoit is fighting sex trafficking.
The local effort was spearheaded by St. Cecilia parishioner Mary Jo Colligan, who attends Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish at St. Cecilia Church. Three and a half years ago, Colligan founded Angels of Mercy, a nonprofit group that aims to help women around the world who are living lives out of their own control.
"We are on a mission to help prevent sex trafficking from taking place," said Colligan, who is president of Angels of Mercy. An associate with the Sisters of Mercy, she works part time as a dental hygienist.
A year ago, Angels of Mercy started participating in the Dress a Girl Around the World campaign, which outfits impoverished girls in dresses to discourage abduction by sex-traffickers.
"When these young girls are dressed in … tattered clothes, (traffickers) treat them as trash and abuse them as young as 3 years of age, and these girls have no way out," Colligan said.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year, and about 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the United States annually.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, the department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force saw a 914 percent increase in the number of complaints related to child victims of prostitution between 2004 and 2008.
"Some criminals have turned away from illicit activities such as drug dealing and robbery and turned toward child sex trafficking because it’s more profitable," the department’s Deputy Attorney General James Cole said during a national conference May 17 on combating child exploitation, according to a transcript posted on the Department of Justice website. "These traffickers can make up to several thousand dollars a day as a single child victim can generate as much as $1,000 on a weekend night."
Colligan said personal contact with vulnerable girls is one way advocates work to prevent trafficking. Girls are given the dresses by missionary volunteers, and each dress bears a tag from Hope for Women International, which Colligan said helps convey the message that the recipients are cared about by women across the world.
Each dress has a pocket and volunteers make dolls or stuffed animals to put in the pockets. Colligan said Angels of Mercy hopes to produce 10,000 dresses this year and has created more than 6,000 dresses so far this year.
Angels of Mercy also hosts an annual pasta dinner to benefit Mercy Ministries, a national ecumenical program that helps women in a variety of situations — including sex trafficking — who have lost control of their lives. The program has residential programs in Monroe, La.; Nashville, Tenn.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Sacramento, Calif., and recently started the website www.endsextrafficking.com.
"(Mercy Ministries) is all funded by donations, so girls can stay until they are healed and ready to move on," Colligan said.
Angels of Mercy recently opened an office at 692 N. Winton Road, Rochester. The organization hopes in the future to offer a clothing closet for local women in need and provide support for women victims.
Colligan said she was drawn to found Angels of Mercy because she wanted to help women who were hurting. The program has become a way for her and other victimized women to come together and heal by serving others, she said.
"I feel very blessed that we are in the place we are," Colligan said. "God’s using us. Every day I just say, ‘Lead me.’"
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on Angels of Mercy, visit www.angelsofmercyny.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.The next dressmaking event for Dress a Girl Around the World is scheduled for 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, at St. Cecilia Church, 2732 Culver Road, Irondequoit. Colligan said the group hopes to make 1,000 dresses during the event and needs new pillowcases, ribbon seam binding, donations for shipping and volunteers to help assemble dresses. Donations toward dinner for dressmakers also are appreciated.