When Britt Crossman graduated from college last spring she had no idea what her future held.
Her plan was to return home to Vinalhaven for the summer, and hope that something presented itself. By mid-summer, it had.
Crossman has incorporated her dreams of travel and desire to volunteer into a compelling job: she is currently in India working at Odanadi Seva Samsthe, a non-governmental organization that rescues women and children from sexual exploitation.
In late July, Crossman ran into a friend who lives in India, who was on Vinalhaven doing business. He recommended that Crossman look into working at a non-governmental organization in India. “It has been my experience,” said Crossman in an interview via email, “that, despite its size and location, Vinalhaven is a wonderful place to make connections around the world and that’s just what I did.”
In college, Crossman had written some research papers about human trafficking for prostitution and had taken an interest in the topic. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn more about it and get involved in the fight against it,” she said.
“Odanadi” means “one who walks hand in hand with you through life journeys” which, according to Crossman, is what the organization strives to do for the women and children it rescues. Odanadi’s objectives include the prevention of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, as well as the rescue and rehabilitation of those who have fallen victim to the crime.
Crossman visits Odanadi about three times a week. Most of her time there is spent filling out applications and writing project proposals for funding, and writing case studies of the girls’ stories.
“All of my experiences here in India have been completely different from anything I have ever known,” said Crossman, “but none more so than my experiences at Odanadi. Despite my almost daily exposure to the horrendous nature of the sex trade in India, when I read or hear one of the girls’ stories I have to remind myself that it’s not just a story, it’s actually true. I have to do this because the things that these girls have gone through and suffered are so far from anything that I can relate to or understand that it’s hard for me to realize such atrocities actually happen and they happen all of the time, to hundreds of thousands of girls.”
Not surprisingly, Crossman is touched by all the stories that she hears at Odanadi, but one story in particular stands out in her memory. “The first case that I wrote about stands out in my mind because it was the first time that I really learned the details of what sexually exploited women are forced to suffer,” she said. The case involved a 19-year-old woman who was married and three months pregnant. She was abducted and taken to a brothel where she was forced to work as a prostitute. Multiple daily interactions with clients took a physical toll on her body until she was no longer able to perform bowel movements.
Finally a client agreed to help her escape. When she returned home she was verbally and physically abused by her husband and thrown out of the house. Eventually, a vegetable vendor helped her find Odanadi, where she received psychological support and medical assistance. According to Crossman, the woman is now mentally stable, but as of a month ago her health was still in jeopardy.
Hearing similar stories almost daily has made Crossman thankful for her own upbringing. “Being from a wonderful family and having grown up in the close community on Vinalhaven, I find it very difficult to understand how, more often than not, the primary traffickers of girls and women are their own family and community members, the people that I have always been able to trust and depend on, and that makes me realize how blessed I am to be able to say that of them.”
Being inundated with such horrific tales might take its toll on one’s psyche, but not Crossman. “While my work at Odanadi is what brings me in contact with these heartbreaking stories, it is simultaneously what enables me to cope with them by putting me in contact with the girls and allowing me to see how they have escaped their misfortune and how their lives are being changed for the better,” she said. “To look at the majority of the girls at Odanadi, to see the smiles on their faces and hear the laughter passing between them, one would never guess the horrors they have been through. Their resilience is truly astounding.”
This experience will surely alter Crossman’s perspective on the world, but she is tempering her expectations. “I have come to realize that the full impact of new experiences is never truly felt until the experience is over and so, I have a feeling that I won’t completely realize or understand the extent to which my life has been influenced by this amazing experience until I leave India.” Crossman will remain in India until mid-March. You can read more about her experience on her blog at brittsindianadventure.blogspot.com.