The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as slavery, which "involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act."

"This issue has always been with us," said Lara Vanderhoof, leader of Set Free in McPherson. "It looks different, but we're still fighting the same issue. People are trapped."

Set Free, a nonprofit organization which is affiliated with the Set Free Movement, was started in McPherson in 2012 to address human trafficking through education about individuals forced to work for companies that do not pay fair wages or who are being exploited for sexual acts.

"I always say 'one is too many,' and we've got way more than one being trafficked out there," Vanderhoof said.

National Freedom Day is observed on Feb. 1 in remembrance of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of a resolution to make slavery illegal in the United States on Feb. 1, 1865.

“We want McPherson County — and McPherson — to be a safe, healthy, vital community to raise families,” Vanderhoof said.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 54 cases of human trafficking in Kansas in 2016 — and an additional 33 cases for the first half of 2017. Of the victims in those cases, 87 percent were female while 13 percent were male. Adults made up 63 percent and minors made up 37 percent of the victims.

"The thing that folks need to know is that the numbers we have that get reported are only what people choose to report," Vanderhoof said.

Human trafficking is not limited to large cities. Risk factors associated with human trafficking — such as poverty, domestic violence and foster care placement — exist in nearly every community.

Vanderhoof speaks to groups interested in learning more about human trafficking and can help communities wanting to form their own Set Free groups.

The organization is in need of volunteers to assist with marketing, social media campaigns and event staffing.

“Our big focus this coming year is going to be on pornography, because that is related and an opening into trafficking,” Vanderhoof said.

McPherson's location at a crossroads of several major highways is also a factor, Vanderhoof said.

"We have a lot of traffic coming up and down and across — we're right in the middle of the country," Vanderhoof said.

Vanderhoof said she has heard reports of parents trying to sell their own children in McPherson.

"Parents are so willing to sell their kids now. I think, ethically, we have a place to respond to all this," Vanderhoof said.

Human trafficking does not necessarily involve removing an individual from their community.

"It can happen within your own home," Vanderhoof said.

Relatives or acquaintances may not place their victims in physical chains, but can use emotional tactics to control them.

"We all can be eyes and ears in our community if we know the signs," Vanderhoof said. "Caring about our neighbors — that's a great, tangible way to respond to this issue. Know who your neighbors are."

College students who are away from home for the first time can also get swept up in human trafficking as they struggle to deal with loneliness, a lack of connection, self-esteem issues and debt.

Set Free collaborates with law enforcement, the Kansas Department for Children and Families, schools, libraries and churches to fight human trafficking and make people aware of the warning signs, which can include running away, having an older boyfriend, behavioral changes, homelessness, branding, substance abuse, having new and costly items or traveling with someone who is not a relative or guardian.

During last year's All Schools Day, Set Free brought in a mobile exhibit from Truckers Against Trafficking.

"There are amazing truck drivers who are part of the fight against this," Vanderhoof said.

Set Free also plans to host an event at Tabor College this spring.

"We're walking barefoot a mile to bring awareness to human trafficking," Vanderhoof said. "Those people suffer, so we're going to suffer for the mile."

If you suspect someone is being trafficked, call 911 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline Resource Center at 888-373-7888.

"It's much easier not to say anything, but if something seems not right, report it," Vanderhoof said.

For more information about Set Free, visit https://www.facebook.com/setfreekansas or call 620-241-7176. 

Contact Patricia Middleton by email at pmiddleton@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.