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In effort to combat human trafficking, volunteers conduct outreach inside Tampa strip clubs

The foundation HeartDance sends volunteers to establishments and offers women hygiene items and other goods.

TAMPA, Fla. — We don't usually get an up close and personal look at human trafficking. After all, selling someone else for sex is illegal, so it's done in secret or under the guise of something else.

10 Tampa Bay got exclusive access this past Saturday as volunteers with the foundation HeartDance went from strip club to strip club in the city of Tampa.

The volunteers say it's part of their mission to stop and prevent sex trafficking and because strip clubs can be a gateway to a lifetime of exploitation, they meet women working in the clubs.

"We've been going back to dressing rooms for 17 years," said Dotti Groover-Skipper, the founder of HeartDance.

Groover-Skipper said she was introduced to the idea of human trafficking 40 years ago when she met two young girls being sold for sex by their grandmother, who was a drug addict.

"It really shook me to the core," she said.

Ever since, Groover-Skipper has worked with survivors of trafficking and those who have been sexually exploited for four decades. It led her to create her foundation, which sends volunteers to Tampa strip clubs once a month.

A Gateway to Exploitation

"Many traffickers will use strip clubs as a grooming grounds to groom women into learning the trade so to speak," Groover-Skipper said.

Laura Henderson knows that firsthand.

After years of bouncing around in foster care, Henderson found herself desperate for attention by the time she turned 18.

"I wanted to feel a part of something, I wanted to fit in, I wanted to feel wanted," Henderson said.

She started working in strip clubs which she said gave her a false sense of empowerment but soon after got into an abusive relationship and then became hooked on drugs and alcohol.

The Grooming Process

"I built this trust and relationship with this guy. He promised to take care of me and made me feel special in the beginning," said Henderson of the man who eventually became her trafficker.

She said at first, she had her own car and kept the majority of the money she made but over time, she got less and less with more going to the traffickers who started to control her every move.

"I guess you could say it was a trafficking ring so I made it up to the main guy after being in it for so long and establishing the loyalty and the trust that they look for," she recalled.

Her situation got even direr in 2018 when the FBI shut down internet websites used to solicit sex. She said it upended the sex trafficking business leaving traffickers more desperate and violent.

Getting Out

"I felt like that was going to be the end of me or my way out and it ended up being my way out," Henderson said.

She found the strength to leave and the help she needed to combat her drug addiction. From there, she had to heal.

"I had to face my trauma, my past and nobody wants to do that. It's painful," Henderson said.

Five years later, her pain has a purpose. Henderson volunteers with HeartDance going into strip clubs and talking with women. She sees something others don't.

"I look in their eyes and I see past the surface and I see, like, myself," she said.

A New Purpose

Henderson and the other volunteers take the women gift bags with hygiene items, snacks and books for their children.

They keep notes on the women they meet and build relationships with them over time.

"They're exploited so they don't get anything that's not transactional, right? We give these gifts freely and don't ask for anything in return," said Aimee Johnson, the outreach director with HeartDance.

HeartDance volunteers have established relationships and trust with club owners and managers over the years. Club owners allow the volunteers to come in and meet with the women knowing they're not there to disrupt business but just to talk and offer the women conversation.

Henderson likes to ask about their hopes and dreams and watch them envision a life that looks different than the one they're living now.

"No one wants to take their clothes off for a living and be objectified and used," Henderson said.

January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Florida ranks No. 3 in the United States for the number of human trafficking cases, only behind California and Texas.

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