While working as a prostitute in 2015 at a motel along Pacific Highway South, Jennifer Tucker encountered the Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking’s Break the Chains 5K.
“I actually saw them all walking, and I saw these signs,” she said. “One stood out. It was a barcode and then a picture of a girl that says ‘I am not for sale.’… I walked up to a couple of the ladies and asked them what they were doing and they said they were just raising awareness of trafficking in the area. Of course, it gripped me that so many normal people would have that much of a passion to stop it.”
Less than a year later, Tucker got out of the industry and connected with FWCAT, which has helped her build a life outside of prostitution. She will share her story at this year’s Break the Chains 5K, which begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 19, at the Commons Mall.
The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “modern-day slavery” that involves “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” It is also seen as a “hidden crime” where victims hesitate to come forward out of fear or other barriers.
Tucker, 40, got into prostitution in 2010. She and her son’s father had gotten back together and needed money. After her son’s father died in 2011, she moved to California, then to Texas where she worked as a prostitute before moving back to Washington state. She tried to find other work when she returned, but was unsuccessful.
“Everybody is like, what is your work history?” she said. “I had previous work history, but it had been several years since I had worked. Trying to find a job to support myself was really difficult. I had nowhere to go.”
So, Tucker returned to the industry she knew.
“Anybody regardless of if they are working independently or working for somebody, if they had a choice of a normal successful life, they would definitely choose that,” she said.
Seeing the FWCAT supporters walking along Pacific Highway gave Tucker hope.
“It kind of sparked a vision that there is a possibility of something I could do when I got out of the industry,” she said. “I had never heard of anything like that. I had never seen anybody that fought for the cause or was passionate about stopping it.”
In February 2016, Tucker was arrested in a sting operation in Pierce County. It was a turning point for her.
“When they arrested me, the officers even asked ‘aren’t you tired? How can you think somebody who lets you sell yourself to supply his needs, how can you think that person loves you?’ … I think it really made me stop and think about things. On that car ride to jail is when I just made up my mind that I was done,” she said.
When she got out of jail a few months later, Tucker put herself into outpatient treatment and started connecting with organizations to help get her back on her feet. She remembered the 5K she had seen the previous year in Federal Way.
“I searched and searched and searched and searched. I didn’t know what it was called,” she said. “Finally this person I know flashed (on social media) ‘5K Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking coming May 2017’ and I am like, ‘oh my gosh. That is it.’ ”
Last year, Tucker walked the 5K. She is serving on the planning committee for this year’s event.
“Once the 5K is over, I hope to play a bigger part in the coalition because they were pretty much the first of many things that helped me get out of the industry,” she said. “They have just really gone above and beyond to help me in my new journey.”
Members of the coalition have provided her with friendship and connected her with resources.
“One hard thing is learning to be normal in a society where you have been excluded for so long,” Tucker said. “They have really helped me feel comfortable and come into myself as to who I am.”
Tucker said FWCAT’s role in raising awareness about human trafficking is paramount. FWCAT is a nonprofit organization that started in 2011 to educate and provide tools that empower government, businesses, schools and local leaders to take action against human trafficking.
“We can sit there and help girls come out of the industry all day long, but wouldn’t it be better to stop it from happening?” she said.
Tucker was sexually abused by a family friend as an infant until she was 7 years old, which shaped the way she valued herself.
“Even if as an adult you are told your voice matters or it wasn’t your fault … that became who I was,” she said. “I was trying to please. That was who I was, so as I got older, that is the kind of concept and the perception that I had.”
FWCAT’s work of getting into schools to teach young children to be aware of sex trafficking is critical, Tucker said.
“I want to be a part of something that, one, teaches children they do have a voice and they can speak out and that people are paying attention,” she said. “And, two, teachers need to pay attention. I was a horrible child when I was in school. I was always in the principal’s office. … There was obviously something wrong with me.”
For more information about the 5K or to register, visit www.bit.ly/FWCAT-5k.