BY BONNIE HSUEH
Imagine your 8-year-old sister — eyes wide and bright — waking up one day only to find herself in a brothel and forced to provide sexual services 20-40 times a day, without a hint as to what her future holds.
Many people in the Western world would find this situation unbelievable. However, a case like this is not uncommon in certain parts of Asia. In fact, child sex slavery is a growing problem, compounded with other local issues, such as poverty, drug use and AIDS.
For Chris Torrison-Mackay, a mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, child sex slavery in Asia is a problem that weighs heavy in her heart. Her feelings of sadness and deep disappointment with humanity have compelled her to act on the issue. As a co-founder of a nonprofit organization, Crooked Trails, she’s decided to hold a fundraiser to support specific organizations in Asia to help the lives of trafficked children.
Though Crooked Trails is not directly involved with the issue of child trafficking, it is a community-based travel organization with a mission to help people “broaden their understanding of the planet and its diverse cultures through education, community development and responsible travel.”
Torrison-Mackay and Tammy Leland, who were both enrolled in the same graduate program in environmental education, founded Crooked Trails about 10 years ago. Having traveled extensively around the world, the two gained serious concerns for the implications of tourism.
Torrison-Mackay knows that tourism is the biggest industry in the world and carries a huge impact. She said, “It can be positive, but it can also be very negative, on the culture, the economy and the environment.”
When the idea for Crooked Trails arose, the co-founders believed that if they could offer a way to give back and to travel responsibly, people would want to do it. “I mean, why wouldn’t you?” said Torrison-Mackay.
As a result, unlike other travel agencies that only show people tourist sites, Crooked Trails organizes specific projects for its participants to have a deeper cultural exchange. Its tourists not only enjoy sightseeing, but also get to work with the locals and do projects to benefit them, such as building a school, a bridge or a community center.
Besides participating in projects, there is also community-based tourism. For instance, the program in India involves a visit to a remote village in the high Himalayan Mountains, about 14,000 feet high. The tourists have the chance to live and have real interactions with local people.
Before heading to the Himalayas, many tourists tend to think of how the experience will make a huge impact in their lives. They rarely realize how meaningful their visits will be to the people of the Himalayas, who never leave their village and don’t often have foreign visitors. After participants on the Crooked Trail program experience the cultural exchange, the people in the villages can’t wait for the tourists to return. “They put their names on the waiting list,” said Torrison-Mackay.
Crooked Trails began with one program in Thailand. Since then, its growth has been amazing. Now, the organization offers travel programs in Thailand, Nepal, India, Peru, Kenya, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia. When asked about the choices for these places, Torrison-Mackay explained that Crooked Trails didn’t pick them. It is the people in the destination countries that invited the organization to come and help out.
With a mission to help local communities, Crooked Trails designs projects as well as other ways to give back to the destination. According to Torrison-Mackay, its philosophy is to have small travel groups. The groups stay in locally-owned businesses and organizations whose work benefits the community; it also gives the participants the chance to make donations.
“Wherever we work, we always have a deep concern of the people that we work with. So whatever the community needs, that’s what we do when we are there,” Torrison-Mackay said. “Sometimes we also see needs outside of the program that we’re working on. And we want to be able to be involved in that — that’s how we got involved in the child slavery [issue].”
On Aug. 17, a fundraiser takes place at 911 Media Arts Center at 7 p.m. Cost: $20. This event includes a film screening, “The Day My God Died,” a documentary that portrays lives of trafficked children and profiles the efforts of the local nonprofit organizations that have rescued the child victims. Also included is a photo exhibition of Jeff Speigner’s works on Thai children who live in an orphanage. (206) 372-4405. E-mail: [email protected]..