At age 14, Lisa Hansen—then Lisa Peyton—looked to the world like a happy, healthy high achiever. A freshman at Saguaro High School in Tucson, Ariz., she was an A student, captain of the soccer team and a church youth-group leader.
A few months later, she ran away from home. She lived with several men who used her to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. When the police located her in a Tucson house, her father, Jerry Peyton—a pastor—found her in bed with one of them. Far from welcoming him as a rescuer, she swore and screamed at him to get out.
What had led her down this path? Most recently, PTSD from the suicide of a male friend—an event for which she blamed herself because he’d tried unsuccessfully to get her to cut class and talk to him earlier that day.
But going back further, it was sexual abuse at the hands of an adult when she was 4. Repressed feelings from that trauma came surging back a decade later, causing her to act out.
“I couldn’t face my parents, who loved me unconditionally,” Hansen says. “I’d think, ‘If you only knew who I am—how gross I am.’
“It was so much easier to run—to be who I thought I was. I didn’t have to pretend any more, to put on that ‘fake little Christian’ attitude.”
Her parents saw that Lisa needed help beyond what they could give. She spent a year in a Christian girls’ home getting counseling. But wounds as deep as hers weren’t ready to heal.
At age 17, Lisa ran away again, this time to Kansas. She lived on the street, dancing in strip clubs and sleeping with men in exchange for a place to stay overnight.
Even as older men sexually exploited her time after time, she didn’t recognize it: She told herself she was in control.
“I wasn’t kidnapped,” she says. “I thought, ‘Guys are going to use me, so I’ll use them.’ I didn’t want to be called a victim. I didn’t realize I was a sex-trafficking victim until my 30s.”
Now, at age 47, Hansen’s old life is far behind her in some ways. She’s a wife and mother, with three children and four grandchildren.
In other ways, however, that life is still very much with her. That’s because she’s drawing on those experiences to save young people from facing ordeals like hers—or even worse.
Together, Hansen and her dad are leaders of Sold No More, a Tucson-based counter-trafficking organization. They reach thousands of people each year—teens, parents, teachers, counselors, social service workers, law enforcement professionals. They’ve spoken to 40,000 students in Pima County, as well as 20,000 adults. They’ve been directly involved in training 2,000 professionals working with youth, an impact magnified when some of those they’ve trained have gone on to train others in their field.
And they’ve been at it less than a decade.
‘An Invitation from God’
It was 2010 when Hansen—then living in Washington state—heard a Focus on the Family radio broadcast with former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith. By then, Smith was a full-time warrior against trafficking, having founded a group—Shared Hope International—devoted to that cause.
Hansen had already been working in a related vein, conducting school presentations on sexuality and predator prevention, among other topics. But despite her background, she hadn’t completely made the connection to human trafficking—or realized how big and widespread the problem was.
As she listened to Smith, that started to change.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to get involved,’ ” she says. “I called my dad and said, ‘Do you know about all this? It’s not only in other countries. It’s happening here.’ “
She’d called the right person for the job. Jerry Peyton is a man who’s worn a lot of hats and pursued a lot of projects. He’s been a pastor, college faculty member, high school teacher and firefighter. He ministered to persecuted people in Sudan during that country’s most violent years in the 1990s. He’s launched multiple nonprofits, including a pregnancy-resource center, a church and a medical clinic.
“I’m kind of a visionary developer,” says Peyton, 70. “I’m attracted to standing in gaps where no one else is standing. If someone else is doing it, I’m not so interested.”
When his daughter called him that day, he was in his early 60s and didn’t know if he had another massive project in him. But Lisa kept at him and he started researching the problem. He learned the U.S. is among the fastest-growing markets for human trafficking. He also learned that in Tucson, there definitely was a gap to stand in.
“No one around here was doing much about sex trafficking,” he says. “That felt to me like an invitation from God.”
To start this ministry, Peyton turned to one he’d started long before—Tucson Crisis Pregnancy Center (now known as Hands of Hope Tucson). Its then-executive director, John Tabor, had been to Thailand and seen child sex trafficking there: He shared Peyton’s growing passion to do something about it and believed this cause was related to the pregnancy center’s work.
“We were seeing women we believed had been trafficked and were considering an abortion,” says Hands of Hope’s current executive director, Elisa Medina. “So (Sold No More) operated under our umbrella for two years-plus, until they grew big enough that they needed to be their own organization. We gave them some seed money, and still work very closely together.”
Finding other partners would take more work.
“I went to some law enforcement and city officials, and I kept getting the same response: ‘We don’t have that problem here in Tucson,’ ” Peyton says. ” ‘We’ve never had a single case of sex trafficking in Pima County. We checked the records.’ “
That’s because the records weren’t identifying it. Teen prostitution, for example, was widely categorized as a juvenile offense, not (as it often is) a case of adults controlling and exploiting children.
That’s not to say that nobody in law enforcement grasped the trafficking problem. “We found people who got it,” Peyton says. “But they weren’t assigned to work on it. And they were frustrated.”
Peyton was, too, in the beginning. But he could see why most officials didn’t get it. “Truth is, a few months earlier, I was as clueless as anyone else about sex trafficking in Tucson.”
So Peyton set out to change that. He launched a campaign to educate law enforcement and social service professionals—and, later, medical professionals—to recognize signs of trafficking and what to do when they encounter a possible victim.
To that end, Peyton brought in outside experts like Smith and law enforcement personnel from Phoenix, Ariz., which has a well-developed counter-trafficking task force. He arranged training sessions and a conference at the University of Arizona. He started a local task force—working with and blessed by law enforcement officials, who welcomed his help precisely because he could work outside institutional constraints.
As the awareness of trafficking spread, so did the determination to stop it.
“I remember one social service worker at a session jumping to his feet, and he was angry,” Peyton says. “He said, ‘We have been missing this! We have kids going out our (office) doors and right back to what they’ve been doing. It’s like a disease we didn’t know how to diagnose.’ “
The most vital thing for Sold No More, however, was to talk directly to those most at risk—teens. Hansen returned to Tucson in 2013 for that purpose.
“This is what I’ve always felt led to do,” she says. “Having conversations with kids and parents to prevent these things from happening in the first place.”
But finding forums to reach that audience was far from easy.
“The tough thing was getting into any school, period,” Peyton says. “They saw us bringing in outside presenters to talk about sex trafficking and pornography and the like. And they said, ‘Whoa.’
“We had to find a principal willing to let us in—to take that risk.”
After months of trying, they did. In February 2014, Peyton and Hansen met with Michael Konrad, then-principal of Tucson’s Booth-Fickett Math/Science Magnet School. They made a strong impression on him.
“They started presenting me with data from the Tucson and southwest Arizona area, and I was shocked and appalled,” Konrad says. “I’d heard stories over the years of things happening to children in our community, but what I did not know was how widespread and frequent it is. I had to do whatever I could to protect our students.”
A school assembly Hansen led that fall made an even stronger impression on students—several of whom approached the presenters or faculty afterwards with reports of sexual exploitation in their own lives.
“Lisa was incredible,” Konrad says. “Our students were absolutely engaged. Sometimes it can be hard to keep middle schoolers’ attention, but not here. They really seemed to connect with the presenters and the content in a way I haven’t often seen with guest speakers.”
Konrad became a champion for Sold No More. “It became a mission for him,” Peyton says. “He began calling other schools, teachers, parents. It took off from there.”
The following year, Konrad became director of middle schools for the Tucson United School District, and Sold No More spread even further. “It took that one person to open the door,” Peyton says.
‘I Thought You Were Telling My Story’
When Hansen first returned to Tucson, she planned to use pre-existing curricula to teach teens about building healthy relationships and avoiding sexual exploitation. Soon, however, she decided to design her own—Power Over Predators.
“I drew a lot of it from my own experiences,” she says. “When kids know what you’ve gone through, it feels very real to them. You’re not just someone coming to them with scary pictures and statistics. They think, ‘This person might know what I’m going through.’
“I remember one high school junior coming up to me after an assembly, and he was absolutely shaking. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, ‘For a minute there, I actually thought you were telling my story.’ ” The young man had been sexually involved with an adult neighbor and recently learned—from images the FBI found on the man’s computer—that the man had been stalking him since he was two years old.
“So many kids are suffering in silence,” Hansen says. “When they learn it’s happening to other people, that’s when they come forward, because they don’t feel like they’re the only one anymore.”
Konrad—now once again serving as a principal, this time at Pueblo Garden K-8 in Tucson—can testify to Sold No More’s impact.
“They’re reaching more and more students across our district and the wider county,” he says. “I’m seeing wider utilization of the content and presenters. The feed-back I get from school staff is always positive.”
Some people in law enforcement have noticed the impact too.
“When they’ve gone into schools, we noticed that more trafficking reports come in,” says Josefina Sabori, formerly a detective with the Pima County Sherriff’s Department Crimes Against Children Unit. She’s now an expert in human trafficking at the U.S. Department of Justice, where her work includes traveling the country to do presentations on sex trafficking and abducted children.
“They’re teaching kids and school staff to recognize trafficking, and the kids are teaching other kids,” Sabori says. “Once they’re trained, students and staff have been able to identify victims and alert the authorities.”
Hansen and Peyton are thankful for progress. Yet the longer they do this work, the more they see how much more work there is to do.
“We’ve spoken with thousands of students, and girls being sold by pimps is only the tip of the iceberg of sex trafficking,” Peyton says. “Far more girls and boys are involved in sexual exploitation in school bathrooms, in their own homes by relatives, and online by adults and their peers. This includes Christian teens and those in Christian schools.”
The father-daughter team stresses the need for youth, teachers, church leaders and especially parents to get educated and engaged in the battle.
“The only way this battle will be won is if the conversation starts at home,” Hansen says. “This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by law enforcement or educators. It takes families.
“Power Over Predators was designed to be a resource for parents to use as well as teachers and law enforcement. They need to know how important their voices are in speaking truth into the lives of children. Parents are still the greatest influence a child can have.”
For More Information:
To learn more about Sold No More, visit Soldnomore.org. If you think you know of a case of human trafficking or want resources on the topic, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or visit humantraffickinghotline.org.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.