A local father and two sons can now say they've visited nearly every massage parlor in Las Vegas.
While that's not a feat many would hang their hat on, Sheldon Monson and his two sons, Eric and Caleb, completed the task in an effort to help those who are being sexually exploited.
The Monsons joined a team of over 250 volunteers, handed out over 10,000 flyers and helped find 13 missing children last week in Las Vegas. As of Tuesday afternoon, that number rose to 15 found.
The mission, called "The Big Search," was an effort to find 30 missing and exploited children in the city. The long list of missing children was mostly made up of teenagers, but a 3-year-old boy was also part of the search. They included missing children that the local authorities had very little information about. In these cases it requires boots on the ground, searching and asking everyone to be on the lookout.
When a teenager is taken or runs away in this area, there's a very good chance they'll be picked up within 24 hours and brought into the sex trafficking trade. With about 1.2 million people coming through Las Vegas every 10 days, it's ground zero for sex trafficking, according to Sheldon, a Wadena County Commissioner, who was a part of the mission team from the area to infiltrate those overlooked parts of Vegas.
The Monsons left on the mission Jan. 28 to join up with FREE (Find Restore Embrace Empower) International to learn about how they would help in the rescue. FREE International works with other groups to perform this search each year. The actual search took place from Jan. 31 - Feb. 2, but the Monsons were able to take in various training exercises before in order to have a better handle on what they would be doing during their time.
Days were long and exhausting, starting their journey through the city at about 9 a.m. and in some cases going until midnight. They walked the strip and open areas handing out flyers to let people know about the cause and information about the 30 youth they were searching for.
Sheldon said they entered businesses, many of which were very accepting of them. One even was grateful as his daughter had run away as a teenager. Only a few times was their message ignored. They dropped off gift bags to workers at all the massage parlors in their database, with 40-60 to choose from, that took some time. Inside the gift bags was a card letting them know the number they could call to get help in getting out if they wanted to escape.
Other teams, made up of women, handled tasks like entering into the brothels outside of town. There the volunteers sought to share their ministry and offer guidance in getting out. They also worked on laptops communicating with girls being trafficked online in an effort to let them know that resources are available.
While the three may have been escaping the polar vortex that ascended on Minnesota, they were not exactly taking the opportunity to enjoy a day in the sun. Caleb heard about the mission opportunity after running a half marathon to raise money for an event like this. Caleb is a youth pastor at Frazee's Harvest Fellowship Church. Eric, who is the senior pastor at Eagle Bend Assembly of God, said while it's important to go on mission trips to spread the gospel, as a Christian, he is also called to help those who need help the most. His heart definitely breaks for those caught in the sex trafficking trade.
"Right now there are more slaves in the world than ever before," Eric Monson said.
And according to FREE International, every 30 seconds another is added to the sex trafficking trade. The average girl being pulled in is 12-14 years old. And it's not just a border problem, it's right here, too.
"It's all over the place," Eric said. "It's everywhere."
The sex trafficking world has a beautiful facade. In most cases you won't even see it looking at the glitz and glamour of Vegas, the men said. But behind closed doors, it's a multi-billion dollar industry, with a foundation built on trafficking children.
Aside from the missing children that were located, the Monsons found out that one 20-year-old girl that got a simple phone number handed to her, made the call and was removed from her situation after having her previous life taken away from her.
The mission really was more than just a search, according to Eric, who said this issue doesn't get solved by them going and finding a few children once a year. In fact, Sheldon heard that four of every seven that are found end up going back into it. The bigger picture involves shedding light on the issue and making people aware that this form of slavery is thriving in Vegas and all over the world.
Sheldon was glad to be able to help the cause, but said that he felt his own life being impacted.
"I think it was very eye-opening for everyone involved to understand the tragedy and how vulnerable children are," he said. While the search was successful, learning about this corrupt world in the shadows was a mental drain.
"It's so disheartening that there's parts of our society participating, but it's also nice to see that there are entities helping out," Sheldon said. "I kind of felt like at times we're going after-kind of the tip of the iceberg." The real work of changing society is the next big step.
"What's causing all this is society or that part of society that participates in this," he added.
A difficult thing to overcome and what the men saw in their travels was that much of society sees sex trafficking as a choice that these children are making. But that's one of many misconceptions.
Sheldon and Eric thought that the prostitution would be easy to identify in Vegas. Actually it's obscured. While the common thought is that it's legal, the Monsons discovered it's not legal in the city of Las Vegas, so those involved in it do their best to blend in. While many put on a front that they are doing what they want, they came to find that most are trapped in the trade with no escape. Most have a pimp or handler taking the money and holding their lives in their hands.
FREE International lists several misconceptions that many people hold to be true about the children pulled into the sex trade. Some of those include:
• They could have run away or asked for help. Many have their lives threatened to the point they feel there is no way out. 89 percent say they want to escape but had no other means of survival, according to FREE International data.
• They should have known better. Many lack the knowledge of services and victims rights. Many are children.
• They deserved it because they didn't avoid the person. Sheldon shared that many of these are vulnerable children looking for a different life. Others are taken against their will.
While these three locals took part in just a week of activities, crews are on the ground year round in Las Vegas working to end what they call modern-day slavery. Visit freeinternational.com to find out more about FREE International purpose and plans.