New ally in war on trafficking

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2012 - 7:46 PM

Minnesota, a sex-trade and forced-labor hub, now also is home base for the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons.

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Patrick Atkinson, founder of the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons, displayed a slave child’s shackles and loom at his home in Minnetonka. He owns a large collection of slavery artifacts.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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These have been actual ads on local classified sites: "Sexy Czech Beauty," "Drop Dead Gorgeous Puerto Rican Playmate," "Unforgettable Oriental Relaxing Massage."

They serve as a gritty reminder that Minnesota is a center for human trafficking -- either for sex or forced labor. The FBI says an average of 100 girls under the age of 18 are trafficked in Minnesota every month.

But the state also is a growing hub for organizations dedicated to combatting this modern-day slavery. One of the newest players with a local connection is the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons (ITEMP), started in Bismarck, N.D., a decade ago but recently headquartered in Minnetonka.

Founder Patrick Atkinson has spent nearly 30 years working around the world to save women and children from traffickers. Now the 52-year-old who exudes the energy of someone 20 years younger has turned his attention to increasing Minnesotans' awareness of ITEMP, a nonprofit corporation with rescue, shelter and education operations in Central America, Southeast Asia, Africa and the United States. The group is holding a fundraiser Feb. 26 at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.

"People want to help. Many would offer to help, one way or the other, but don't know how," Atkinson said. "Our philosophy is to work hard, keep it simple and pure, and people will want to help us."

Minnesota is home to several organizations working on the front lines of trafficking, including Breaking Free, Civil Society and Men Against the Trafficking of Others.

Atkinson moved ITEMP here about a year ago, but he is no stranger to the fight. A Bismarck native, he graduated from Minnesota State University, Moorhead, in 1981. He had an interest in social work after interning in Hell's Kitchen in New York City, working with street gangs, prostitutes and the homeless. He began working with runaways after he was approached by parents to help find their missing kids in New York. Over the years, his work morphed into international rescue efforts, taking him to working with widows and orphans in a war zone in Guatemala to working for the United Nations in Southeast Asia, chronicling child prostitution.

While working in Africa, he saw trucks from Mozambique pull into a village and sweep up dozens of women and children.

"It was a mass kidnapping," he said. "It was probably my first glimpse of human trafficking."

In 2001, he founded ITEMP "to detect, rescue and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking," he said.

Its $2.7 million annual budget is funded entirely through grants and donations -- "thousands of people writing $25 checks," Atkinson said. ITEMP relies on volunteers and partnerships with agencies around the world. It provides safe houses and education to victims. Atkinson said they are looking to expand soon into Eastern Europe.

His rescue efforts became personal over the years; he has adopted 17 children. Now, he has turned some of his attention to swaying Minnesotans to give their time and their money to the cause. He talks to school groups and Rotary clubs and colleges.

Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, a gourmet chef and event planner, is from Guatemala and now lives in Eden Prairie. She can testify to Atkinson's impact after visiting the ITEMP project in Antigua, Guatemala, a couple of months ago.

"The actual site is really welcoming. You don't feel like you are going to a shelter for victims of abuse," she said. "They have a lot going on for women and kids, victims. For me, it's really important to see that and very gratifying. I really appreciate what Patrick is doing in my country."

Moreno-Damgaard is the lead volunteer for La Fiesta For Freedom, which begins at 5 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Dakota Club. The event will feature Latin cuisine, ethnic drinks, performances by Cuban jazz pianist Nachito Herrara, a marimba band from Breck School and Alison Scott and her band.

Anthony Bramante, another ITEMP volunteer, got involved with the group after meeting Atkinson following Bramante's military service overseas. The former Marine Corps officer, who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, met Atkinson through "a friend of a friend." It didn't take long to sign up, he said.

"Part of it was just Patrick's personality. He is very passionate and committed to serving the most disadvantaged of our society," Bramante said.

Not burned out

Atkinson, who was recently in Central America "holding babies and talking to mothers," admits there have been times that he's grown weary in the work. He's never been burned out, he said, "although I have felt sizzled a few times."

He added: "Misery burns us out if that becomes our reference point in life. I don't let that happen."

Instead, he says, he preserves the optimism that trafficking victims can be saved.

"I count the victories one by one," Atkinson said. "I don't have the time or the capacity to worry about winning the war because we are so busy winning the battles."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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