Part I: Journey to Freedom - Mercy Project & Child Slavery

This is Daniel. He was forced into slavery on Lake Volta; the largest manmade lake in the world.
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Many of us have experienced the feelings of stress and worry that come with financial hardships. Some of you may find a second or even third job, others may sell anything they have to get by. But for many parents out there watching -- imagine yourself at rock bottom -- imagine being approached with a price for your child. Would you do it? Tonight marks the beginning of a series of stories and investigations into child trafficking that took News 3’s Nicole Morten to Ghana, Africa.

It happens every day. Even right here in the U.S. and as many of you are about to see firsthand -- in third world countries, child trafficking has become not only the exception -- it's the norm. While we could all agree there is certainly no price you could put on a human -- in Ghana, children as young as 3 and 4 years old are sold for pennies on the dollar and promised a better future -- but instead -- they're ripped from their homes and forced into slavery. If you witnessed this injustice with your own eyes, what lenths would you do about it? A College Station based non-profit called Mercy Project says they're not tolerating the epidemic -- and they're providing a voice to the innocent child slaves who've been robbed of their future.

If you ask this mother of four - she'll be the first to tell you: Family and faith come first.

"The greatest gifts we can give a child is their family,” said Heather Hendrick.

After living in a third world country, dinner time and story time have become more than just a routine for the Hendrick family; instead - they are both tangible and cherished memories that are lived out daily.

“Just as a mother in general, I think about the world I want to hand over to my kids,” Hendrick added.

After serving as missionaries in Haiti, this family of six moved back home to College Station with a newfound appreciation for life, including a lifetime of stories. As soon as the Hendrick's got home, both Aaron and Heather decided it was time to get involved locally.

“Change doesn't happen by just talking," added Hendrick. "But until we actually get involved and do something, then real change doesn't take place."

Hendrick started volunteering for Mercy Project - a College Station based non-profit organization working to break the cycles of child trafficking and forced child labor on Lake Volta in West Africa.

“I think even eight years ago if you had asked me about slavery, I would have said, oh that doesn't exist anymore,” explained Hendrick.

But it does. In Ghana, Africa, human trafficking has been washing ashore over the last 50 years of hundreds of rural villages nestled on Lake Volt: the largest manmade lake in the world.

“One of the things that poverty tends to rob people of is there voice and as an American, it's hard for me to imagine a world where something really terrible is taking place, something awful could happen to me or my children and no one would know about it,” said Hendrick.

That's the reality for these kids. While the Hendrick's tuck their kids into bed - half a world away – kids forced to live inside tiny remote fishing villages like Adovepke, you’ll find many awake before the light of the day; scooping water out of boats, and many others, hunched over for hours, pulling in heavy fishing nets filled with the night's catch.

These are the faces of modern day slavery.

“Kids as young as five are being forced to work all day every single day and the kids are often physically abused; the teenage girls are often sexually abused as they get older,” said Chris Field, founder of Mercy Project. Chris Field is a modern-day abolitionist; he is the face of Mercy Project.

The conception of Mercy Project

“I read a book that included some stories about some kids in Ghana that had been trafficked and I was just really moved by that story,” said Field. “At the time I was pastoring a church where I was looking for a family mission trip to take our church members on and I wanted something that would really excite us, and engage us and not just something that we kind of knew about half way; so I looked at going to Ghana and connected with the group who put out the book and they said we could come along.

Not even two months later Field found himself far away from home.

“I was in Ghana and seeing everything for myself and seeing everything I had read in the book; the stories of the children on those pages in the book just came to life,” explained Field. “And to see them face to face and hold their hands and to learn their names and see them working on those boats was just really overwhelming in so many ways.

Field said that mission trip was the catalyst for Mercy Project.

“Seeing this huge need, I just thought to myself, ‘We've got to find an avenue, a vehicle to fix this,’ “said Field. “It requires people to say, 'I don't care the way the world is because it shouldn't be that way and I'm going to do something about it and I don't know what that's going to look like, and I don't know how successful I'll be, but I can't just sit idly by while I know that happens and I think there's a responsibility once we know the truth we have to choose.”

The root of the problem

“In the source communities, which is what we call where the children come from, the issue is that you have impoverished parents; rural communities, lack of school, lack of education, opportunity, lack of food and a lack of resources, so these parents have virtually nothing to offer the children,” said Field. “So someone will come along and they can offer the children a place to sleep; they can offer the child an opportunity to learn to do something helpful with their hands -- which is fishing - and so they think, okay, my child is just sitting here doing nothing all day long and I'm wondering how I can care for them and maybe this person can take better care of them than me. In the old adage maybe if it's too good to be true, it's probably not true -- is really at play here. I mean, I think the parents are hoping this life is going to be something with the fisherman that they probably know deep down it's probably not going to be, but that tiny sliver of hope that maybe what I'm doing really is better for my child, I mean maybe this really can be a better opportunity for my child. Just that small glimmer of hope makes parents do really crazy things.”

Nicole Morten: “Why is the need for children on Lake Volta so demanding?”

Field: “The gill net that the fishermen are using is a net where the fish actually stick to the net. They don't want the fish to hit the net and be able to swim away so when they get entangled it becomes very hard to take them off,” explained Field. “So they need the small fingers of the children to begin to pull the fish off without tearing the net. And also, the source of labor is so inexpensive. The fact is you can buy multiple children for a very small dollar amount and -- as long as you keep them enough food to stay alive -- then you have this labor source for many many years that's incredibly inexpensive."

News 3's Nicole Morten interviewed many of the slavemasters living inside the village of Adovepke. They admitted they knew child trafficking was illegal -- but, in their eyes, they didn't view it as a crime; instead, they expressed the act as simply supporting a family in need. Children are no longer viewed as children; rather, a number.

“We've heard figures as low as low as $20 U.S. dollars for a child, and in that case, it's probably going to be a parent who is incredibly desperate and probably not even able to feed the child they have in their home -- so that is better than nothing to them. Furthermore, once you pay money for a human being, then they become just like any other asset that you have. This becomes a black market and the item is humans; children.”

Eradicating the epidemic has become Field's full time job; operating as a non-profit, fundraising has too.

“This community has been so incredibly supportive. We've don’t the Turkey trot, the marathon the last several years, and the Guinness world record events that we've done and people have really responded and participated in those events,” said Field.

The B/CS marathon is one of the largest fundraising campaign's that fuel the Mercy Project's mission. Whether last year’s racers directly knew it or not -- the fees from each entry put the organizations first rescue into high gear.

“The whole race, and the weekend and the fanfare and all of that, the way we get the energy and the passion to push through that and to put on the best event that we can and to have sleepless nights and long days is because we know at the end of that journey, we know that we're going to be able to raise some money to help more of these kids,” said Field.

Nicole Morten: “It's hard to wrap your mind around something like that happening, but why do you think it's so important for the world to see this injustice?”

Field: “I think God created in all of us a hunger for righteousness and goodness and I think every human being knows when something’s not right. You see terrible things happen every day and it's easy to become callused and to become hard-hearted and I think the reality is that the world is not going to be changed by hard-hearted people who say, well that’s just the way the world is.”

For the Hendrick's -- it's not about sitting on the sidelines and living vicariously through a greater cause; instead, you can find this family of six, at the front of the starting line -- even if it means kicking a few doors down along the way.

A comment from News 3's Nicole Morten

Having a mother from Venezuela and growing up with family from across South America has helped me truly appreciate people and gain a better understanding of culture. But after witnessing and hearing the heart-wrenching stories from many of these children - who you'll soon get to meet -- my entire outlook on life and humanity was forever changed.

One of the first questions that many people have asked since my return is: "Why isn't this organization helping out kids in America? And the truth is they are; both locally and across the state. As the story mentions, the B/CS Marathon is the largest fundraising campaign for the Mercy Project. Proceeds not only benefit this non-profit, but last year, 60 percent went towards two other organizations right here in the Brazos Valley.

Imagine being taken from your home at the age of five or even 14. You're forced to live in an unfamiliar place, with strangers. And every morning before the sunrise, a rope is tied around your waist, and a man who forces you to call him, "Master," dumps you into the lake.

As painful as these stories are --- they're real and at the end of the day, regardless of where you live, the truth of the matter is - we are all human.


Now that we've introduced you to the Mission of the Mercy Project -- stay with us - for the next four nights we'll take you on a journey to freedom. Each night, News 3's Nicole Morten will be joining us with a new story at 10 p.m.

Monday night on News 3 at 10, we'll take you to a village that's not even on the map and we'll hear stories from more child slaves and you'll also hear from the slavemasters themselves. And Chris Field will explain what solution he and his team have come up with to solve the epidemic of child trafficking in the village of Adovepke.

If you'd like to learn how you can get involved, or even take a trip to Ghana with Mercy Project, click on the link below.