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Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker’s words resounded across the room as she stated the discomfiting but undeniable truth: human trafficking is “around us everywhere.”

Parker was one of the speakers at Thursday’s Survivor Leader Luncheon, presented by The Net FW, also known simply as The Net. The event, held at River Crest Country Club, honored survivors of human trafficking and included the presentation of Survivor Leadership Awards to Misty Turner and Valerie Warren.

The mayor said the problem of trafficking affects the city of Fort Worth as it does so many other cities across the United States. And that is why the organization The Net FW exists, to fight an atrocity that has resulted in thousands and thousands of people – mostly young females – being kidnapped and sold into slavery, most often sex related.

“The survivors today, you’re my heroes,” Parker said, adding that Fort Worth’s response to the problem must be “Not in my city.”

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Carlo Capua, the city’s chief of strategy and innovation, reiterated the message “Not in our city! Not in our town! Not in our region!”

The event was a fundraiser for The Net, a nonprofit led by founder and Executive Director Melissa Ice that has provided support for over 1,000 survivors of trafficking. The organization’s motto is “Fighting for a world where girls are not for sale.”

The honored survivors described what The Net has meant to them.

“You helped take the mess that I was and gave me the strength to be the woman I am today,” Misty Turner said.

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Valerie Warren said: “Remember, there is no force more powerful than a woman determined to rise.”

Among the numerous dignitaries in attendance were Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, Fort Worth Police Chief Neal Noakes and Tarrant County Criminal Court Judge Brent Carr, who presides over a special court for women involved in sex trafficking. Carr, who will retire at the end of this year, created the RISE (Reaching Independence through Self Empowerment) program, which works to identify vulnerable women with extensive histories of prostitution or prostitution-related offenses and help them turn their lives around.

Carr had high praise for Ice and her work with The Net saying, “She’s like a nuclear power plant, she’s burning bright.”

Capua also praised Melissa and said that she and her well-known husband, musician-entrepreneur Jamey Ice, are “Fort Worth’s power couple, but they are too modest to admit it.”

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Melissa Ice took the stage momentarily for a few words before introducing the keynote speaker, Rachel Thomas, a survivor, activist, author, educator and appointee to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

“I hope Fort Worth will lead the way in showing the entire nation how to tackle this problem,” Ice said. “We have a lot more in common than differences. We understand everyone’s inherent worth and value. We believe every single person is worthy of a chance to rebuild their life.”

Ice then referenced her 6-year-old daughter, Rosie, whom she said loves Disney villains and defends them by saying, “They’re not that bad, they’re just having a hard time.”

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She said Rosie wants to dress up as renowned Star Wars villain Darth Vader for Halloween this year. When she asked Rosie why she doesn’t think Darth Vader is really a bad guy, the youngster replied: “You can tell when Luke looks into his eyes he’s not bad, he’s just sad.”

“What if we all did this and looked a little deeper into people?” Ice said. “What if we started by looking into their eyes? My hope is you leave here today with a tangible desire to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Thomas captivated the crowd with her harrowing story of being trafficked while a student at Emory University in Atlanta (she later graduated from UCLA). A man told her he was the No. 1 talent agent in Atlanta and that he wanted her to be his next model. He did land her a paid modeling job, she said, but a couple of weeks later she learned the terrifying truth of what his plans were for her and other young women.

When she told him she wanted out, Thomas said, the man said chillingly, “B—- I own you.” Then he started reading out her parents’ home address.

Not only was Thomas a victim of human sex trafficking, she was later contacted by the Atlanta police and accused of being an accomplice to trafficking. However, she said, it was then that a series of miracles began that turned her life around, starting with a kind detective who believed she was a victim and not a criminal.

Miracle No. 2 occurred when she told her parents about her situation.

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“Imagine sending your daughter off to college and getting her back like that,” lamented Thomas, who said she wrote a suicide letter and was going to follow through the next day until she found out that “My father was up all night praying for how to bring me back to life.”

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Thomas credited the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 for playing a key role in ultimately getting her victimizer sent to prison after she and three other victims testified.

Thomas became a teacher in 2012 but said she later realized, “I had more to give my students than a high school English curriculum.”

Thomas said was able to reclaim her life because people gave her a chance. “They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I say don’t judge a life by the chapter you walked in on. I don’t take for granted I’m at this chapter in my life. People showed up for me.”

“The Net has emerged as a great gatherer and change-maker in this community,” she said. “And remember, everything is bigger in Texas. Today is the day to show up.”

To learn more about The Net and how to help visit the organization’s website.

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