COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – For many Ohioans, it’s hard to believe people are being bought and sold as modern-day slaves in America, but, it’s happening every day in central Ohio and beyond.
Governor John Kasich’s office estimates more than 1,000 children become victims each year in the state and thousands of others are at risk.
One way victims are identified is by tattoos, or brandings. It’s a practice traffickers use to show they “own” their victims.
A Columbus woman who escaped just a few years ago is now dedicating her life to helping others erase those brandings and the memories of their painful past.
A permanent reminder
For Jennifer Kempton, her tattoos are a permanent reminder that she is a survivor.
“All tattoos tell a story, that’s absolutely true. The tattoos before told a story of violence and ownership and abuse and trauma. They were marks, demoralizing marks of violence, now they tell a story of growth, of hope, empowerment, freedom,” said Kempton.
Kempton was branded several times when she was being trafficked, even a ‘property of’ tattoo with the name of her trafficker.
In April of 2013, after six years on the streets and a failed attempt to take her own life, she said she found God and her purpose; to help other human trafficking victims literally erase the past.
Telling a story
After six years on the streets, the pain was unbearable.
She hung herself.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said.
The memories of drug addiction, rapes, sexual abuse as a child–all started to fade away.
Then, the rope broke.
“This voice came out of nowhere and said ‘I have a purpose for you and it’s not to die in the basement of a crack house.'”
That night, she says she found God and her purpose.
Jennifer: “He found me,” she says, laughing. “God found me that night.”
She started Survivor’s Ink to help other human trafficking victims erase the past.
No longer haunted
In less than two years, the non-profit has helped dozens of other human trafficking victims, like Melanie Dillon, cover up tattoos of the men who kept them enslaved.
“His name is not on me anymore and that means…everything,” said Dillon.
Dillon, like Kempton, had a less than perfect home life. The hard drugs started at just 13. By 16 she was working in a strip club with a fake ID. But, she recently celebrated two years of sobriety. And, thanks to Survivor’s Ink her demons no longer haunt her.
“It’s something beautiful. And, to think I don’t have to live that way no more,” said Dillon.
Kempton calls tattoo artist Mike Prickett, with the Evolved Body Art Tattoo Shop on North High Street, her hero.
“To him it’s just a tattoo, to us we are reclaiming our bodies,” said Kempton.
Without him, she said, there would be no Survivor’s Ink. Prickett understands their pain. He’s a social worker by day and a tattoo artist at night.
“Whatever the job calls for is kind of the population I’m trying to serve,” said Prickett.
He donates his time transforming scars into art.
“It’s a trip. I never thought of myself as being anyone’s hero. Just kind of doing what I do, trying to make a difference any way I can,” he said.
Looking to the future
Thanks to this team effort, victims like Dillon have finally moved on and are thriving. Today, Dillon is taking classes at Columbus State Community College and said she wants to be a chef. Kempton is now in a stable long-term relationship and the mother of a newborn baby girl. Survivor’s Ink is a way of healing herself.
“When they look at that finished product , I mean it just pretty much always brings tears to their eyes and they do hold their head up higher,” she said.
Survivor’s Ink has requests for financial help from victims in every state in the nation and as far away as England. All the money raised goes directly to victims, covering the cost of a new tattoo, gas money and dinner. It’s a day they never forget.