Bill Legere, a nurse practitioner, has seen child poverty and neglect in his hometown, where he works in the emergency department at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, and in orphanages in Africa and Eastern Europe, where he's traveled on various humanitarian missions. But the suffering took on a new dimension five years ago when he led a construction trip to a Nigerian orphanage.
At the trip's end, Legere's team decided to donate the more than $8,000 it had left over. They thought orphanage leaders would use the money to build another house, hire a cook or upgrade the kitchen. But what was really needed, they said, was to build gates around the compound to keep out the sex traffickers who tried to lure girls into prostitution.
"They had recognized the biggest risk to a very vulnerable population," he recalls, noting that girls are abandoned more often than boys, and they're more often exploited and abused.
The experience prompted Bill and his wife, Teresa, a registered nurse, to make human trafficking a priority in their altruistic efforts. They had started the Foundation for Hope & Grace, focused on helping "orphans and vulnerable children who are at greatest risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation and brokenness." Their daughter, Grace, died in a traffic accident in 2008 at age 9. "We mourned very, very hard and in our mourning we realized life is very short, that kids' lives are lost every day, and we wanted to do something more formal, more aggressive, to help," says Legere.
The foundation works with private donors to fund projects in Ecuador, Haiti, India and the United States. Projects typically involve a partnership with local advocates. In a very poor part of India, for instance, it is funding early intervention efforts by a public health social worker at Baptist Christian Hospital to prevent girls from being coerced into prostitution rings in Calcutta and New Delhi.
"She wanted to educate people so that when somebody comes to you and says, 'Here's a cellphone, I think your daughter's fantastic, she'd make a great maid for this rich family,' that's not what's happening," Legere says. "What they are really doing is tricking their daughter to be sold into the sex trade."
The horror is not limited to overseas. Two years ago, Legere led the launch of a second nonprofit, Not Here, to address sex trafficking in Maine, where rural poverty makes girls especially vulnerable. "We realized there was a tremendous lack of understanding about how bad the problem is here," he says. "Law enforcement didn't get it, social service providers didn't get it, and health care providers definitely didn't understand that people could be trafficked in the United States."
Not Here hosts an annual conference at Central Maine Medical Center. About 75 law enforcement, nonprofit, health care and social service professionals attended the first in 2012; 300 attended in April 2014. "People are coming to this conference and talking about solutions," Legere says. "They leave and they're working together to make things happen." Not Here is about to open what Legere says is the first safe house in New England for women and girls rescued from the sex trade.
Legere also is working with hospital administration to get a child abuse pediatrician on staff and establish a safe space for children in abuse cases — "a place that's kid-friendly and not like a hospital," says Sharron Sieleman, chief nursing officer at Central Maine.
Recently, Sieleman says, a young woman came to the emergency department with a vague abdominal complaint. In the past, the staff might have overlooked everything but the specific medical condition, but something about her story didn't sit right. They asked more questions and found out she was a prostitute, brought to the city by her pimp and dropped off to make some money. They contacted police and helped her to find refuge.
"They were listening with different sets of ears because of Bill's teaching and knowledge," Sieleman says.