WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWTI) — Human trafficking is continuing to impact communities across the globe, as anyone can become a victim of the crime, including Rebecca Bender, an honor roll student and varsity athlete who called the rural parts of Oregon home.

Bender had just graduated high school and had plans to attend Oregon State University when she became pregnant with her first daughter. This changed Bender’s plans but she eventually moved away from home a year later.

She then met her boyfriend at the time, who Bender believed was the “man of her dreams,” helping her and her infant find comfort in difficult times.

“I fell in love with a young man,” she said. “I thought he was my knight in shining armor.”

However, when the man moved the young family to Las Vegas for “employment purposes,” Bender’s life flipped upside down.

“He ended up being a trafficker,” Bender explained. “I was taken to Las Vegas for nearly six years until the feds finally raided our home and allowed me to have an eventual avenue for escape for me and my daughter.”

Although she tried to escape many times, she said after brainwashing, trauma bonding and abuse, it was nearly impossible.

“It wasn’t like the movies,” Bender shared. “I think we all have these misconceptions that trafficking is people locked in basements. But it’s not like that. The reality is that in America, sex is for sale and the product has to be sellable for traffickers.”

An 18-month federal investigation led to Bender’s eventual freedom from trafficking but she said life was difficult once she was free.

She had to maneuver poverty and homelessness all while providing for her daughter.

She eventually pushed through and now serves as a specialist on human trafficking for law enforcement and runs an educational nonprofit and online school for survivors. Her new mission is to warn communities of trafficking realities.

“It really looks different based on the community in which you live and the types of crime and types of populations that are more prevalent in your area,” she warned. “We’re not noticing trafficking happening in our very own homes on our own social media every single day.”

JCC Director of Student Activities and Inclusion Margaret Taylor said that the goal of Bender’s presentation was to bring awareness to the issue.

“Human trafficking does exist in Watertown,” Taylor explained. “We want to be able to give people the information they need to see the red flags, so they can help others out of the situation.”

Bender added that the community support helped her move forward and wished the same to victims and survivors.

“Trust your gut and do the next best thing,” she said. “Because there’s a whole group of people here waiting for you.”

Those who believe they are victims of human trafficking should call or text the National Human Trafficking Hotline:

  • Text 233733 “HELP” or “INFO”
  • 1-888-373-7888