Photo contributed by Brian Willis
Brian Willis meets with women in Kathmandu.
Photo contributed by Brian Willis
Brian Willis meets with women in Kathmandu.
Brian Willis first encountered a victim of sex trafficking while working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Paraguay in 1984. He was called to a mud hut where a teenage girl was very ill.

Willis persuaded one of the two truck owners in the tiny village to take the girl to the nearest hospital, 12 miles away. Fortunately, the girl survived.

In desperate poverty, the girl had sold herself, and then became pregnant. She was given a strong poison to induce an abortion. The poison, of course, almost killed her.

After joining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in 1990, Willis started researching the impact of sex trafficking on teens, often while on assignments overseas. During these trips he met other young women, like the one from Paraguay, and their children. During one trip to South Asia in 1999, he was taken by a colleague who worked in a large red light district to meet a young mother. When they arrived, a man was walking out the door while her infant crawled on the floor inside.

In 2002, Willis and a colleague published the first ever study on the global health impact of sex trafficking of children. After publication of the study, he was invited to work with a number of organizations in the United States and overseas. For the past 10 years, he has served as the health advisor to ECPAT-USA, one of the oldest anti-trafficking organizations in the U.S.  Currently he is receiving support from Senator Ron Wyden to get information from the FBI about teen victims of sex trafficking.

He began collaborating with organizations overseas in 2003.  Since this time he has dedicated his work to mothers who are trafficked and in prostitution and children.

“The alienation and isolation many of these mothers face has been echoed many times during a project in 2006 with mothers in prostitution in Asia,” Willis said. “Most of these mothers said that this was the first time anyone had ever asked them about their children.” One of the outcomes of the project was a microfinance program specifically for mothers, which helped 150 women start small businesses for alternative sources of income.

In 2007, while meeting with a group of mothers in prostitution in Kathmandu, Nepal, the women asked Willis to promise that he would keep working to help their children. From this encounter, Willis founded Global Health Promise, which is now a project of The Task Force for Global Health. One of Willis’ top priorities is to open the first childcare center for children whose mothers are in prostitution in Kathmandu. He has been discussing this project with Caritas Nepal and hopes to obtain funding in the near future.

Locally, Willis founded Our Mother’s House in 2010. It is the only local organization solely focused on the needs of trafficked and prostituted mothers and their children. Through generous weekly donations from St. Honore’ Boulangerie in Northwest Portland, Brian has been able to offer a meal and support to mothers and their children every week. Our Mother’s House recently threw a surprise baby shower for one of the women who helps them connect with women on the streets. The party took place in a gravel parking lot on 82nd Avenue but no one cared as they enjoyed cupcakes and ice cream.

Willis also realizes the need for the spiritual support for victims of human trafficking and slavery. Several years ago, he commissioned an icon of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was sold into slavery in her native Sudan, in the late 1800s. She eventually won her freedom with the support of the Canassian Daughters of Charity and joined the order until her death in 1947. He has launched an effort to have St. Josephine Bakhita declared patron saint for victims and survivors of human trafficking and slavery.

Likewise, Brian knows that the people who work with victims and survivors of human trafficking and slavery need their own Patron Saint. So he had an icon of St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit who cared for African slaves for decades, written for this cause. The icon was blessed at the chapel of the Oregon Jesuit Providence on Sept. 4.

“While many people cannot understand how someone would get into a situation like this, I just focus on the fact that these are mothers and children who need our support and what we can do for them now and going forward,” Willis said.

Like most small organizations, Global Health Promise and Our Mother’s House have been hit hard by the current recession. Brian has had little funding for his outreach on the streets of Portland over the past two and a half years and the van that he uses for outreach needs major repairs. While there is, fortunately, much more funding for trafficked teens in Portland and elsewhere, there are few organizations that specifically reach out to mothers and their children on the streets of Portland and globally.