MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Trafficking survivor Penny Hoeflinger is telling the story of her struggle in a different way: Theater.
“The play is my heart,” Hoeflinger, who co-wrote the play entitled “Avoiding the Octopus,” said about using the play to educate the youth. The play will be presented by the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force of Shepherd University and Coffee House Farm.
The play follows four steps outlined in Hoeflinger’s workbook that she created to educate communities on human trafficking.
Step one for a trafficker is to “find a vulnerable boy or girl between 11 and 14 years old . who is angry with family, unhappy at school, isolated, abused, in foster care or defenseless.”
Step two-groom them. “Wow you’re pretty. Come to dinner, I want to be your boyfriend. I’m the only one who loves you. I have gifts for you. Let’s go on a trip, I’ll pay for everything. I’m out of money. Will you help me? My friends will give us money if you just.” Hoeflinger said those being “groomed” get caught before they know what happened.
Step three is to “force the victim to work or steal from them by threatening them.”
Step four is to “trap victims by giving them pain, broken heart, loss of self-worth, horrible living conditions, no rights/no time off, disease, torture/violence and alcohol/drugs and making them think it’s their fault, love, because they’re bad, that you care, it’s their purpose in life, that no one else is trustworthy, that no one else cares and they have no other options.”
Hoeflinger, who will be narrating the piece, said she chose to do a live play because she wants the audience to feel the emotion.
“I wanted to do it live because I want to make an impact,” she said. “When those people walk out of that theater, they are not just going to go talk about what they learned; they are actually going to have that feeling of what it is like.”
She said she hopes those who attend will take away with them a “wider vision of their community” and are “more aware of what is happening in their neighborhoods and also in their own families.”
“I want to make a difference and leave a legacy,” Hoeflinger said in an interview about her decision to write the play.
This play is just one legacy she hopes to leave. She started Coffee House Farm to be “a safe place for women who have been rescued from human trafficking and need a compassionate place to rebuild their lives from the trauma they had endured,” according to its Facebook page. She hopes to have a farm in West Virginia and Virginia for victims to heal.
There are many forms of trafficking including sex trafficking, servitude, babies, labor, sex movies and organs.
“(Organ harvesting) is becoming very big . A lot of people don’t want to sit on the waiting list so they buy (organs) off the black market,” Hoeflinger said. “In India, it is known that (traffickers) go over and offer money for a kidney from one of the children.”
She said there are also black market babies.
“Not every baby that is up for adoption was actually given up,” Hoeflinger said. “I happen to know because my first three children were taken and sold. . I never saw them for 18 years.”
Hoeflinger said it does not matter what she is doing, she always talks about human trafficking. She is also involved in different human trafficking groups.
“The only way this is going to get stopped is if we cut the head off,” she said. “We can’t cut the head off if we are not out there talking to the young people.”
Hoeflinger added that trafficking is money-driven and traffickers are going into rural places and offering to do things like pay rent in return for “favors.”
She said she believes going in to communities and bettering people’s lives will also help stop trafficking.
“You have to cut the supply. It is supply and demand,” Hoeflinger said. “If you are not doing that, it is going to keep growing. It doesn’t matter how many doors you kick in, it doesn’t matter if you do not help to do the education. This is why I do what I do.”
She wants to travel across the state and educate individuals through her workbook and play.
Hoeflinger said she gets a lot of healing from telling her story and helping others.
At 16, Hoeflinger married her first husband, who she said sold her in the bars so he could drink.
“I am 70-years-young, so they did not call it human trafficking back then,” she said. “I was also born in Wyoming where women were to keep their mouths shut and husbands could do whatever. We have progressed a lot. I have seen a lot of changes. Does it bother me sometimes when I am talking about it? Yes. But the thing is, if there is one person out there that does not get hooked up in it, then the little emotional pains that I am going through is all worth it.”
She was able to get away from being trafficked when she was in Denver, Colorado.
“One of the people that bought me for the night said ‘what are you doing here? You don’t belong here.’ I said ‘this is what I am doing, I need the money.'”
Hoeflinger said the man never touched her and smuggled her out of the city the following night. She said she believes he was an “angel.”