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Video: One Billion Rising event aims to aid women harmed by human trafficking

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When Valentine’s Day comes around, we’re urged to turn to our sweethearts with professions of love. A yearly gathering in downtown Naperville encourages women to direct some of that emotion toward others who are mired in circumstances far less heartwarming.

This year’s local expression of the One Billion Rising dance for justice incorporated new elements intended to build participants’ love for themselves, and for other women they are unlikely ever to meet.

Operators of the WAR (Women At Risk) Chest Boutique in downtown Naperville partnered with the organizations Love Letters to Yourself, Mutual Ground, and Stone Soup & Lemonade to host a Saturday afternoon workshop that combined art, writing and dance to foster heightened hope and empowerment.

The boutique, on Jefferson Avenue just east of Washington Street, offers jewelry, accessories and other items made by women from all over the world who are at risk of sexual exploitation or trafficking, or have already fallen prey to those ills. Love Letters to Yourself emphasizes the power of self-love and appreciation. Stone Soup & Lemonade works in Naperville to help women connect, support and empower one another. Mutual Ground, housed in a former mansion in Aurora, provides emergency shelter, legal aid, transitional housing and other support for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Among the activities at Saturday’s event was an exercise in self-love that had participants focus on their own intrinsic value.

Stephanie Pearson of Plainfield made a sign that declared, “I love myself because I am Beautiful!”

On her sheet of paper, Sycamore fiber artist Marilyn Hrymak wrote, “I (heart) to make my art because it’s healing and powerful.”

Georgiann Baldino of Naperville was a newcomer to the endeavor, which is held around Valentine’s Day each year.

“I love the idea of this store,” Baldino said as she sat writing her messages.

The participants also wrote letters to women who have been targeted in sexual slavery and other human trafficking operations and are now in protective settings. Most of them opened their messages with “Dear Sister,” to underscore the sentiment of solidarity.

“We really want to not only affirm that we love ourselves, but also shine that light on other women,” said Meggie Zayas, marketing director for the Love Letters group.

Kathy Woods of Downers Grove, a cofounder of Stone Soup & Lemonade, emphasized that the communications would go a long way in lifting up the victims to whom they will be delivered.

“This gives the person hope,” she said. “Your letter is going to be sent to the right person, and it will be just what that person needs.”

Ashley Pitariu, manager of the boutique, said in addition to domestic abuse and sex trafficking, Women At Risk International takes on such issues as acid attacks and honor killings as well. She noted that while the mechanics of saving so many women from so many forces of harm may appear daunting, the mission is simple.

“We just want to lift women back to worth and dignity,” she said. “Whatever their dream is, we want to encourage that dream and make it real.”

According to the organizers, many of the women whose lives are impacted by exploitation and violence are not really different from those who work to bring them out of the darkest of places. The agencies continue to encounter a belief that affluent communities are relatively immune to trafficking and sexual violence.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said Wendy Martorano, marketing and event coordinator at Mutual Ground.

According to federal data, there are about 100,000 incidences of human trafficking in the U.S. annually. Another 700,000 cases occur elsewhere each year.

The afternoon culminated in a group rendition of One Billion Rising’s “Break the Chain” routine, a dance done worldwide on or around Valentine’s Day to demonstrate support for women and girls at risk of sexual exploitation and violence, and those already victimized.

The participants were clearly taking the day’s messages to heart.

Carol Terrell of Lombard was sporting a pink T-shirt bearing the Billion Rising logo on its front.

“I figured I would buy the T-shirt, come out and see what I can do,” she said. “I like the idea of writing letters to women to encourage them and give them strength.”

Woods, a dance instructor who helped organize last year’s Billion Rising event, said the effort will continue.

“This is going to be an ongoing thing,” she said. “We need to reach more people.”

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