Alumna Laura Hamilton is driving force against child sex trafficking

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Even as a kid standing up to bullies, Laura Hamilton knew she wanted to be a voice for those who felt they didn’t have one.

Hamilton is the founder and president of the nonprofit Bridging Freedom, an organization that is opening a therapeutic safe home and campus located in Pasco County for young victims of child sex trafficking.

“I wanted to take care of those in need,” said Hamilton, who graduated from the USF College of Public Health in 2011 with her MPH in global health practice. “I started school to become a nurse [she had to drop out of a nursing program because she would faint giving an injection] and then a teacher. I was attracted to public health, finally, because of the way people come together to help solve issues.”

Laura Hamilton, MPH, founder and president of Bridging Freedom. (Photo courtesy of Laura Hamilton)

The road to public health was a meandering one for Hamilton, who started her undergraduate work at USF as a 40-year-old mom raising four children alone.

“I knew if I was going to survive on my own, I had to go to school. Plus, I wanted to go. I had a passion for learning,” she said.

Hamilton, a Florida native, took a few education classes with the intention of becoming a chemistry teacher. She discovered teaching wasn’t for her, but chemistry was—and love for the subject led her to ultimately major in bio-medical sciences. Her bachelor’s degree landed her a job with Shriners Hospitals in their research department, working within the intellectual properties division helping to find investors for new devices and procedures their researchers were working on.

“I would take their work and develop a marketing plan around it,” explained Hamilton, “so I could help bring whatever solution they were working on to the children who needed it.”

While pursuing her master’s and working at Shriners, Hamilton did a semester-long project on human trafficking and then landed an internship with a U.S. Department of Justice-funded task force on childhood sex trafficking in the Tampa/Clearwater area.

“I was aiming to go into hospital-infection control,” noted Hamilton. “But this project and internship completely changed the course of my study. Our children are being forced into having sex with, on average, 15 buyers a night, day after day after day. That there was a demand sickened me. Horrified me. Angered me.”

After graduation, Hamilton took a job with the task force and the undercover agents that rescue victims.

Hamilton (center, left) with Gov. Rick Scott and state and community partners. The state donated $1 million to the Bridging Freedom project. (Photo courtesy of Laura Hamilton)

“During a task force meeting, an undercover agent passionately asked the community, ‘Isn’t there someone who can help us find a place of healing for these kids?’ I thought, ‘Well, I can do that. Through skills I learned in the COPH, I created a gap analysis of services within our state and nation. I was able to find a successful model, partner with a family foundation for donated property to build the model on and find legislative champions to help with our cause,” she said. “Human trafficking is a business that uses our youth as a commodity. Legislators are beginning to understand the issue and we are doing our small part. But much more still needs to be done.”

Bridging Freedom is slated to open mid-summer.

Artist’s rendering of Bridging Freedom. (Photo courtesy of Laura Hamilton)

The program will provide lodging, safety, education, physical and mental health services as well as recreation to 12 girls, ranging in age from 6 to 18.

“I suspect we will be full right away,” said Hamilton. “The first thing we will be doing is giving the girls safety from their trafficker. Many of them have developed trauma bonding and run back to their abuser. We will offer them master-level trauma-informed care, therapy sessions, health management, education—nearly all of them are behind in school—life skills, equine, art and music therapy as well as fun trips to the aquarium or zip-line adventures. We want to give them some of their childhood back.”

According to Hamilton, nationwide there are few specialized programs that are able to provide this type of therapeutic care. But the need for more is great. The National District Attorneys Association reports that 100,000 to 300,000 children in this country are prostituted annually.

Hamilton hopes that when Bridging Freedom is fully operational, 52 girls can be served.

“I truly believe that childhood sex trafficking is a public health issue, and unless the community comes together, we will have little impact on their healing,” said Hamilton. “This is a phenomenal project and something I never thought I’d be involved in. The community is waking up to the reality that our own children—at the average age of 12—are being targeted. Anyone who is vulnerable can be victimized. My public health passion is trying to stop it.”

Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

A physical therapist.

Where would we find you on the weekend?

Recently it would have been buried in Bridging Freedom. But then I noticed my husband crying, “Hey, remember me?!” So now you’ll find me chilling with him. You might find me on a boat ride with him, a motorcycle ride with him or sitting in a restaurant with him.

What was the last book you read?

“The Circle of Courage,” by Deborah Espiner and Diane Gould

What superpower would you like to have?

To fly.

What is your all-time favorite movie?

“Secondhand Lions,” and any movie where the characters stand up for a hurting world.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health