About a year ago, a nightmarish text flashed on the screen of Matt Parker’s smartphone.
“Please help me,” the message read. “I’ve been trafficked.”
The sender of the text, a young girl from Thailand, was in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Traffickers had flown her there, deceived her and locked her in the room of a hotel. She faced the prospect of working involuntarily in the sex industry – a common fate of the world’s 45.8 million slaves, who are also forced to work in domestic servitude or to pay off debts. (Source: https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/)
Able to text from a hotel bathroom, she had contacted Parker because in 2012, he and his wife Laura, both 2000 graduates of Appalachian State University, had started The Exodus Road, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based nonprofit that helps find and free slaves in India, Southeast Asia and the Americas.
Parker and his team, working with authorities in the Kingdom of Bahrain, employed deft detective work from afar to pinpoint the hotel’s location – information that enabled authorities to obtain a search warrant, free the girl and arrest her captors. Noi, an alias the Parkers use to protect the girl’s identity, is one of over 800 slaves whose rescue The Exodus Road has facilitated in its five-year history. Working in tandem with police in five countries, they have saved hundreds of slaves and led to the arrest of nearly 300 human traffickers.
“It’s always the same,” Matt Parker said, reflecting on the rescue of Noi and others. “These are human beings – little boys, little girls. They have a future. They have a name. They have parents. They have a history. They have so much that has been taken away from them. To get the information that we’ve got them, that they’re safe – it’s like this huge exhale.”
Matt Parker is CEO of The Exodus Road; Laura Abels Parker serves as the nonprofit’s vice president of communications.
The Parkers first began to appreciate the scale of the human trafficking problem in 2010 when they moved with their three children to Thailand. Matt Parker directed a home for children and a charitable foundation. Until then, he had been a youth pastor at a church in Colorado. Both Hickory natives, the Parkers returned to Colorado last year.
The home Matt Parker ran in Thailand provided education for Noi and other impoverished girls from the Hill Tribes region of northern Thailand, an area where human trafficking is rampant. As the Parkers learned more about human trafficking – Matt Parker became deputized by the local police to conduct undercover investigations – they discovered that efforts to combat it were underfunded.
The Exodus Road has addressed this problem by supplying much-needed technology, investigators, case support and evidence gathering to enable or encourage law enforcement to conduct raids or rescue missions.
“Law enforcement is often understaffed and underfunded and overwhelmed with the issues they are battling, and we come in and provide them with investigative support to make raids possible,” said Laura Parker, a Chancellor’s Scholar at Appalachian who received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a minor in English.
“Sometimes we do a large portion of the case work,” she explained, “and other times, they call us to collect just specific evidence they need to make a stronger case for human trafficking. We also provide social workers to follow up with survivors and advocate for them as we are able.”
Matt Parker, a communication major, stressed that his organization works in partnership with local authorities, having spent years to develop the right relationships.
“We believe in collaboration, that no one wins unless we all win,” he said.
The Parkers’ nonprofit may have its origins in Southeast Asia, but Appalachian planted many of its seeds. The Appalachian Experience exerted an enormous influence over the Parkers during a formative time in their lives, they said. This influence extended to the couple’s Christian faith, a strong motivator for their current professions.
While at Appalachian, Matt Parker was influenced by Dr. Richard Spencer, a now-retired professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion. Spencer “challenged me to really critically think about my faith,” Matt Parker said. “He influenced my paradigm and world view and what it means to really serve people. He helped me see faith as more practical and I still remember some of the things he said to me individually and in his classes.”
In an interview, Spencer elaborated, contending faith and religion “are not diminished but tested, shaped and made mature by continuous, serious critical assessment.”
“Genuine faith is love and care in action,” he said. “Doing good for others is where faith and religion are real. Those values are real to me. And I am glad that they have been significant for [Matt Parker] as well.”
Spencer praised the Parkers, saying “it takes a unique kind of person to care deeply enough about those who have been victimized and exploited to do something real and dangerous about the problem.”
“Matt and Laura not only have undertaken the task of trying to help some individual victim or some specific cases of human slavery, but also have multiplied and widely expanded their work by addressing it systemically,” he said. “They have used extraordinary organization and management skills and insightful analysis of the problem to maximize their work.”
Laura Parker has written a self-published book titled “The Exodus Road: One Couple’s Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue.” Learn more about the non-religious organization at www.theexodusroad.com