Players' wives raise awareness in battle against sex-traffic trade

Courtesy of Love146
Heather Crane, Lindsay Hiebert (daughter of Love146 co-founder Lamont Hiebert), Dowd Simpson and Athena Perez (left to right), met in Cambodia for a week-long trip to raise awareness of the horrors of the child sex slavery.
May 04, 2010
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

Within 10 minutes, Heather Crane was physically sick to her stomach.

Her husband, Ben, was back in the United States playing in the World Golf Championships-CA Championship at Doral Resort & Spa. But Heather had left that heady world of pro sports and creature comforts to go to Southeast Asia to help raise awareness about the horrors of child sex trafficking.

She was joined on the trip by Dowd Simpson, the new bride of Webb Simpson, and Pat Perez's wife, Athena. On this singularly disturbing night in March, the three women found themselves in one of Bangkok's three red-light districts.

Together, Anything's Possible
The PGA TOUR's charity website gives users the ability to access information and donate to charities that their favorite players support. Ben Crane, whose wife Heather was one of the three players' wives who visited Cambodia, has a charity page that can be accessed by clicking here. For the main page of the PGA TOUR's charity website, please click here.
Learn more about Love146
Love146 is an organization that seeks to end child sex slavery and exploitation. To find out more about this organization, please click here for the official website.

"The one we went to was surrounded by a night market so you had normal people and children all around," Heather said, shaking her head. "You had open karaoke bars and then you'd have an S&M establishment.

"Then you'd have the kind of place ... where the girls are lined up (behind a glass window) by row according to their beauty and their price. How horrible would that be to have to do that for a living and be on the bottom level because you're one of the ugly ones?"

As they walked through the red-light district, Perez said she felt like she was in some sort of a twisted "Stephen King carnival." Women in bikinis gyrated and danced in glass walkways above the bars and alleys below.


"Every time you walked by any storefront, men walked up to you shoving menus in your face with pictures, descriptions and prices," Athena said. "I felt like I was in a nightmare. It was really creepy."

Crane, Simpson and Perez traveled with Rob Morris and Lamont Hiebert, who co-founded Love146, an international group dedicated to eradicating the sexploitation of children. The organization takes its name from a defiant little girl, identified only by the number 146 on her red dress, seen being sold at one of those brothels during an undercover operation.

The group spent a week in Cambodia, The Philippines and Thailand, three countries where this scourge of inhumanity is most prevalent. They saw safe homes as well as the searing poverty that makes families and children susceptible to these predators' promises in the first place. They learned from experts in the field but more importantly from those who lived it first-hand.

"The trip was just a constant combination of hope and despair," Heather said softly about 12 hours after she landed in Miami and was reunited with her family.

"You have a bunch of mixed emotions," Dowd agreed. "In the first place, you are repulsed at the whole thing. At the same time, this is not much different than what is happening in our own backyards."

Heather first went to Southeast Asia in 2005 with her husband. She and Ben met Hiebert, a Canadian singer and songwriter whose Christian rock band is known as Ten Shekel Shirt, at an outreach in southern California that year.

His cause soon became the devoutly religious Cranes' cause. They have hosted a pro-am for the last four years and have raised more than $1 million to help build sanctuaries like the Round House the group visited outside Manila.

Like Heather, Dowd and Athena are active in the PGA TOUR Wives Association. Dowd had been on mission trips when she was in high school and has friends who worked domestically to help stamp out sex trafficking. This trip, however, took all three out of their comfort zones.


For Dowd, the opportunity couldn't have been more well-timed. She and her husband Webb, who is in his second year on TOUR, had been talking about finding a way to serve.

"We prayed about it one night and the next day we saw Heather and she said that she was going on this trip," Dowd said. "It was like a complete open door. It was like a prayer was answered."

Athena heard about the trip 10 days before Heather and Dowd were scheduled to leave. She ran into Heather at a baby shower and asked if she could come along. Athena doubted her friend thought she was serious at the time.

"It was a scary thing, thinking about going to a third-world country," Athena acknowledged. "In your mind you're going to ghettos, slums, you're leaving the comforts of home. It's something I had to overcome.

"I had to convince Pat. He was worried about me ... but he saw how much I really, really wanted to go. ... I bought the ticket the week before we left. I said if I can make it there and get back, it's fate. So I went online and found a ticket. I was like, OK, that's it, I have to go."

And now that they're back, their lives have been changed forever.

"I went in not really knowing what to expect," Dowd said. "I came out feeling well-educated and on fire and wanting to do something. It was more of a culture shock coming home. We went from such poverty and depravity to a life of such prosperity. I can wear what I want and eat what I want. I have everything I need at my fingertips."

"I am making it a point not to forget this," Athena agreed. "... It's definitely changed how I feel about other people. Cheesy as it seems, there is not enough caring and compassion in the world."

The women first saw hope at the Round Home, which is located in a secure location about two hours outside of Manila. When they got out of the car, the group was greeted by 16 girls, all dressed in pink, who had been rescued from brothels.

Each room in the colorful round building opens up to a circular garden in the center. There are three beds and stuffed animals in each room, as well as a library and a tree house where the girls assemble for therapy sessions.


Seeing a nearby volleyball court, Perez suggested a game and it turned out to be the "best icebreaker," Crane said. "(There was) instant laughter." The teenagers cheered when someone scored a point and then laughed at their own mistakes.

"We're playing this game for like an hour and all we can think of is we can't believe these girls have been through what they've been through,'" Crane said. "I know there's deep-rooted things there, but they're truly getting help and being restored. ... It was just a sweet, sweet interaction."

After the game, Perez, Simpson and Crane toured the Round Home and then sat in the library to listen to the girls sing and play guitar. Among the favorites was the hymn "Coming Back to the Heart for Worship." A shy 15-year-old named Fe sat down next to Crane and talked about her dreams of a new life.

"My eyes welled up with tears as the reality sunk in that these trafficked girls are real people -- full of hopes and dreams, all just wanting to be loved," Heather said.

"To be in a life like that -- to have your name stripped from you -- and to be able to overcome that is amazing," Dowd added.

Later, Dr. Gundelina Velazco, the resident therapist, told the women more about Fe, who had recently been rescued by the IJM, the International Justice Mission. Drugged and sold as a virgin, Fe had been repeatedly trafficked -- and even raped by a doctor who was examining her. The scars on her wrist were from an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

The youngest girl, who had arrived at the Round Home the previous Thursday, was just 13. When her parents died, her uncle had taken her into his family. He later passed away and his girlfriend sold her to an abuser. She once dug a hole deep into the ground in a desperate attempt to either "hide or die," Heather said.

The rescued children could see there was hope, though. A young girl named Diana had come in so suicidal the previous year that she tried to jump in front of a car. She went through therapy and later returned to her village on the island of Cebu where she fell in love with a childhood friend.

"Not only does he know about her past, but his whole family came by boat with him as he proposed to her," Heather said. "That is such a story of redemption in itself and she can now work with the girls -- not only do they trust her, they can see that a dream can truly happen. That a man can still really love and want you. That's one of the most beautiful stories."

Dowd remembers Diana picking an old brown leaf off the ground.

"She said, 'That's how I used to be when I first came here -- dead, I had no life,'" Dowd said. "Then she pointed to a tree and said, 'That's me now. No matter how many branches fall, I'll be strong."

On Wednesday, the group flew from Manila to Bangkok where they met with Dr. Glenn Miles, who is the director of Asia Prevention for Love146. For more than two decades he has been an advocate for the rights of abused children in Southeast Asia.

"A lot of people blame it on those parents, those wicked parents who must sell their children," Heather said. "But so often, it's coercion and manipulation and fear. They really don't know what's going on. So they've come up with videos and a curriculum for schools, to teach -- so you know when a guy approaches you and says he'll give you money so you can get a job or go to school and send payment back to your family to support them, that's not legitimate.

"But these people fall for those things so easily because they are so desperate and so poor."


Heather had what she called a "total a-ha moment" when the group met two Americans who are working with the MST Project in Bangkok. They go into the red light districts at night and approach the men -- who are overwhelmingly tourists -- and ask them to participate in a survey, which in turn leads to a discussion of why they are there in the first place.

"Their findings are that these men are hurting and they're lonely and they are trying to go to these brothels to fill some void that is not really going to be filled there," Heather said. "And so, to me, I get so caught up in the bad-guy thing. What's he doing here and a sicko and that sort of thing, the whole mentality, but a total light bulb went off with me, that they're hurting just as bad.

"So these guys think that men are part of the solution. If you can change their ways, ultimately decreasing the demand, saving souls might make a difference."

Dowd said the men that the MST Project confronts in the red-light districts often are there because they confuse intimacy with sex. "They tell the men that they know an intimacy far greater than the physical," she said. "And some of the men are finding Jesus right there in the red-light district."

Athena remembered one burly man who told them that he wasn't scared of sexually transmitted diseases. He'd been having unprotected sex for 30 years. He also told them he thought the young girls liked what they were doing -- that they liked having sex with white men.

"A lot of men, some women, too, think it's their choice," Athena said. "That's what people don't really understand. So many of these girls start as teenagers -- they're tricked into the sex trade, kidnapped, brainwashed.

"Then when they get into their 30s, that's all they know. Their pimp, their handler, has convinced them that's all they are good for."

Heather said the issue of child sex trafficking is second only to the sale of illegal drugs and hardly confined to Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka is known for young boys sold into prostitution, Cambodia for children. Young girls in Eastern Europe are lured to the United States with promises of modeling careers.

"I read a quote last night and it might have even been written by Martin Luther King but it was, one person can change the world and millions of people can create a movement," Heather said. "And that's really what we're trying to do, is create a movement of social awareness that this does happen and it's unacceptable to exploit children for sex."

That said, she knows there is a long way to go. Heather was talking with an upper class Thai man and his wife on the plane. He owned a paint shop and his wife was the proprietor of a clothing store. They employ five live-in maids at their home.

"I was telling him about what we were doing and he said, you mean, like pedophiles?" Heather recalled. "He went, what? He didn't even know it happened and his country is known for being one of the worst.

"So I think perhaps, maybe it's a coping mechanism, to just turn your ear and close your eyes and not even engage and I think that's kind of the worst thing that we can do is to pretend it doesn't even exist."

In the five years since her first trip, Heather sees increased awareness of this disturbing issue -- particularly on college campuses where "they have more of a heart for social justice," she said.

"This trip was definitely harder than my first because I wasn't a mom," Heather said. "Seeing 2-year-olds, my daughter's age, begging for food, it's heartbreaking."

That searing poverty was strikingly evident when the group went to Poipet, a Cambodian border town known for trafficking where they visited two schools committed to helping at-risk children. At one, called Safe Haven, the kids can learn to make furniture and repair motor bikes.


The other school, an after-school facility, was located at the end of a long dirt road lined by ramshackle huts with rice paddies in the back.

"It's amazing the resilience and surviving day to day," Heather said. "We saw one old woman with a wired thing where she'd been barbequing bats. Six bats. She offered us a taste."

"She was so proud of that meal she had cooked," Dowd said.

The Crane's pro-am -- which also benefits HOPE Farm, a Christian community in Fort Worth, Texas, that disciples fatherless boys -- will be held Monday, May 10 at the Vaquero Club in Westlake, Texas. The pro-am is during the week of the Valero Texas Open.

"Ben has an incredible platform because of what he does," Heather said. "People might pay attention a little bit more and it might grow to the movement we're hoping and it will continue to take off."

One of Heather's favorite quotes comes from Gary Haugen, who is the founder of the International Justice Mission.

"He said it's not about where is God, it's where are God's people," Crane said. "Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but then you think, wow, can anything really happen here. ... It's just sharing what you're learned and connecting with other people who care."

Heather Crane and Dowd Simpson and Athena Perez made that connection when they took a step outside the glamorous world of the PGA TOUR.

What they saw during that week in Southeast Asia was ugly. It was repulsive. It made them sick.

But they want to make a difference. And now they have a story to share.