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The Arts: The LifeBoat Project and JCFilms Team Up to Stop Human Trafficking

shady characters talking to a young woman. It says "not for sale" with the logo for the LifeBoat Project on it

Can a movie with a message change the world? The teams behind The Lifeboat Project and JCFilms Studios have teamed up with a new big-screen project that answers that question with a resounding “Yes.” 

The film, titled Not For Sale: Florida, is the latest development in The Lifeboat Project’s decade of fighting to combat human trafficking. Founded in Orlando, which is ranked number three in the nation for human trafficking rates, The Lifeboat Project has been lauded for its holistic approach since its launch in 2013.

Founder and CEO Jill Cohen recalls an “Aha!” moment when the nonprofit first started and she was speaking with team members of Freedom Network USA, a national coalition that fights for human trafficking survivors.

“They told me, ‘If you’re only bringing awareness and training, and you don’t have a game plan for housing and services, you’re doing a grave injustice to the victims and to the community.’ That hit me like a ton of bricks. From then on, I knew we needed to continue to assist people after they’d escaped these situations.” 

Human traffickers force people into slave labor or commercial sex acts through violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The problem occurs on an enormous scale: Worldwide, nearly 40.3 million people have lost their freedom to human trafficking. Traffickers prey on people who are susceptible through psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship or lack of a safety net. They target people of all ages and backgrounds, and they know their victims are too afraid to go to authorities.

The issue has been thrust into the global spotlight in recent months because of the court cases of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who were both convicted of sex trafficking involving young women. The two were linked with Britain’s Prince Andrew, who recently settled out of court with a woman who said she was offered up as a sex partner with him when she was a minor. 

The Lifeboat Project helps trafficking victims get back on their feet and reintegrate into society. Sonya Hightower-LaBosco, who serves as the nonprofit’s project coordinator and a board member, explains how the program operates: “There are three components to our program: making them safe, helping them heal, and empowering them to grow. There’s no expiration date on their stay here or on the resources we provide.”

For The Lifeboat Project, there is no better place to make a difference than in their own backyard. As one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Central Florida is a target for human traffickers because they can get lost in the crowd, and the area’s waterways and airports provides an easy means of travel and escape. There is also plenty of opportunity for traffickers to find customers for their nefarious work.

“Whenever there’s a big event, which happens so often here, human trafficking rates go through the roof,” Cohen says. “You’ll see spikes in trafficking at the hotels as well, because that’s where a lot of the conventions and business gatherings are hosted. Unfortunately, that’s a prime opportunity for traffickers to make money.”

In the past two years, COVID-19 lockdowns have only exacerbated those numbers. Many people were suddenly trapped at home in unsafe environments, while children were spending more time online, where they were more vulnerable. And some children were at the mercy of desperate parents who were willing to go to unspeakable lengths to overcome economic hardship. All those circumstances drove up trafficking numbers worldwide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Report on Trafficking in Persons Report released in 2021.

For Cohen and Hightower-LaBosco, who is also a former Daytona Beach police officer and a retired federal air marshal, those extra challenges simply hardened their resolve. “We never stopped working,” Cohen says. “We didn’t shut down. And we finished that first year of COVID in the black.”

From Backyard to Big Screen

The Lifeboat Project was in the middle of navigating those increasingly choppy waters when an out-of-the-blue email dropped a new idea right into their laps.

“A colleague mentioned that JCFilms and the director, Jason Campbell, were coming to Orlando to do a project on human trafficking, but we weren’t really familiar with them at the time,” Hightower-LaBosco recalls. “Campbell’s phone number was right there on the email, so I just picked up the phone and gave him a call. I left him a voicemail and told him who I was and what we did. Within five minutes, he called me back.”

In that first brief conversation, she quickly explained the last decade of The Lifeboat Project’s work. Three days later, Campbell flew to Orlando to meet with them.

“We had a couple of survivors go with us to relate their stories,” Hightower-LaBosco says. “We asked whether he could address labor trafficking, male survivors, stories that have gone untold in the past. It really opened his eyes.”

The partnership was born, with The Lifeboat Project signing on to co-produce the feature with JCFilms Studios, known for its work making faith-based feature films that help nonprofits spread their message.  

The movie is scheduled to begin filming in Central Florida this year and is set to star Dean Cain, who played Clark Kent and Superman in the TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” The rest of the casting took place later in 2021, with Cohen, Hightower-LaBosco and some of The Lifeboat Project’s survivors taking a more active role in that process than they’d expected. At one casting call that turned out more than 200 people, the three were shuffled to the screen-testing room. 

“We didn’t know anything about casting,” Cohen laughs, “but they said, ‘Nobody knows the characters that are needed better than you guys.’”

They even contributed to the script, with Cohen drawing on her background in production as a professional singer and worship leader. 

The film is shaping up to center on The Lifeboat Project’s mission and the real stories of their survivors, although some aspects will be changed to protect the identities of those involved.

“We don’t want to retraumatize them or interfere with any of the open cases,” Cohen says. “Everybody within our program is attached to a trafficker, sometimes internationally. At the core, the goal is to make sure the victims can continue to safely live their lives.”

The Lifeboat Project has other goals associated with the film, too, Hightower-LaBosco says. “Maybe this can be the start of building a roadmap using what we’ve done here in Central Florida as a model, and it can help other organizations that are providing long-term care service.”

Sharing the Road Map

That model currently includes four properties, gifted to The Lifeboat Project by another local nonprofit that closed its doors in 2018. With the help of the Home Depot Foundation and HomeAid Orlando, the properties were remodeled, turned into a 14-bed safe house, two transitional homes for women andLGBTQIA+ community members, and a permanent low-income housing triplex.

The organization’s awareness-raising campaign is also robust. Community partnerships with entities including law enforcement, the Florida Department of Transportation and Orlando International Airport enable the nonprofit to train employees in how to spot suspicious situations, and what to do after one has been identified. In partnership with the Orlando Police Department, for example, The Lifeboat Project has completed more than 60 training sessions with staff at the airport.

“There are certain things they can watch out for,” Hightower-LaBosco says. For instance, sometimes victims are not allowed to control their own travel documents, speak with a person at the counter, or look up and make eye contact with anyone. “We get these insights from the victims themselves, and we use these real-life scenarios to prepare those who might encounter them to intervene.”

Hotel staff are getting that same training. “No hotel wants to be a part of this horrible thing, so they’re trying to be proactive,” Cohen says. “The hotel industry recognizes human trafficking as a significant issue and is doing everything within its power to inform employees: from the front desk, to baggage attendants, to the caterers and everyone in between.”

The Lifeboat Project is poised to bring that same awareness to filmgoers all over the world once the film is distributed. “Jason makes movies that don’t just entertain, but that get people off the couch and engage them,” Cohen says. “Our hope is that people will watch the movie and want to get involved.”

 


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About the author

Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham is the managing editor for i4 Business, where she oversees the company’s digital media strategy, handles client relationship marketing for the print and digital magazines, and serves as one of the publication’s lead writers. A native of Brevard County, she splits her time between Central Florida and Nashville, Tennessee.

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