Rotary Ends Human Trafficking festival in Pine River is a small start to a big deal
Outreach proves successful even with smaller turnout.
PINE RIVER — The Rotary Ends Human Trafficking music festival held last weekend at the Lakes Music and Events Park in Pine River drew a smaller crowd than hoped; however, every step along the way succeeded in creating awareness of human trafficking, thus making the event a success.
"Even in promoting the concert what we've done is education," said Mery Kay Verkennes, REHT festival chair and Central Lakes Rotary Club member. "That's our plan all year long. Keep doing seminars and gathering people. I think that's our big goal."
Organizers were still somewhat disappointed with the small crowd size for the inaugural event.
"We're a little disappointed," said Verkennes. "I think it's going to be 200-300. I don't know for sure. I haven't been able to keep track of the people here. We are a little low on numbers, but we are hoping to keep growing that every year. We have a fairly good number of campers, nothing like bluegrass, but I think we had some good day traffic. Other people also said they wanted to be here but weren't going to be able to make it."
While awareness was perhaps the No. 1 priority, organizers also hoped REHT would raise funds to support local groups that combat human trafficking.
"It's two things: Educate and create awareness in big groups and little groups. Then it's to help places that are helping like PORT, Freedom Ranch and the Safe Harbor people," Verkennes said. "We hope to raise some money so we can donate to those places so they can do their work. We need them. We're not the professionals, they are the professionals. They are doing it and we want to help them."
REHT is not just a local cause, but a global one. Approximately two years ago, Rotary International announced an update to its goals, adding human trafficking to the causes that the world's largest volunteer organization supports, alongside eradication of polio and other diseases.
The addition of human trafficking to their docket was one reason Verkennes threw her hat in the ring and joined the Central Lakes Rotary Club.
"I joined when I realized Rotary International was taking on human trafficking," Verkennes said. "It's a really important endeavor. I wasn't looking for more to do. This is just kind of on my heart. I'm a former psychologist and I did a lot of trauma work with abuse and sexual abuse victims. It seemed like a really important mission. I kind of brought some ideas and someone approached me about the possibility of having an event to educate people and here we are."
The local committee began meeting at that time. Steve Hansen, with the Pine River Area Foundation, which owns the Lakes Music and Events Park, and organizers for the Lakes Bluegrass Festival (coming up Aug. 24-28) brought up the idea of holding a music festival.
Verkennes said they felt they could invite guest speakers to educate the crowd between musical performances in a way that was nonthreatening and educational.
Over 50 groups and businesses throughout the area sponsored the event. They sought bands to suit a variety of tastes. At first they flirted with the idea of trying to get the Oak Ridge Boys to the event, but the cost was too great and they were competing with the Wisconsin State Fair.
Performers included Tim Eggebraaten, 32 Below, Corey Medina and Brothers, Remedy Drive, Kent Dudley and Bended Knee, Plumb, Rush Tribute Project, Ayiesha Woods and Adelaide.
Between bands they had speakers on human trafficking, including Dawn T. Fiedler's presentation on social media's role in human trafficking; Pequot Lakes Police Chief Eric Klang's presentation on the police role in ending human trafficking; Nicole Anderson, of Mille Lacs Band Health and Human Services; a human trafficking survivor called "Angie;" as well as Shantel Dudley and Stacy Shaffer.
Speakers all did their part to educate the crowd on what human trafficking looks like and how widespread it truly is.
"We know Minneapolis is a hotbed, but so is Duluth," Verkennes said. "But throughout all Minnesota we're really working on getting the word out."
The goal is to make REHT an annual, growing event, but that doesn't mean it's local Rotarians' only effort. Outreach and education will continue all year long with members of the Central Lakes Rotary Club meeting with groups both large and small.
Local churches, including Central Lakes Rotary President Stephen Blenkush's congregation at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Pequot Lakes, are welcoming speakers from Rotary to educate members on human trafficking. Verkennes said the same is true for several churches throughout the area.
"There is a lot of community involvement from people." Verkennes said.
In addition, the local club is only a small part of what Rotary International is doing all over the world. In some places, that can include increasing access to education and freedom for women in other countries to make women there less vulnerable.
Now with one REHT music festival in the books, Verkennes said they can start planning specifically to increase crowd numbers.
"I think we need to concentrate on getting people here," Verkennes said. "I think that's a growing process. Lakes Jam didn't have many people there that first year, but now look how good they're doing. What I have learned is how much just doing this has raised awareness. Even if people don't come, they are so supportive. And people are learning about human trafficking and they are open to learning."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.