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Deidre Pujols continues to throw heat at human-trafficking crisis with Priceless fundraiser

Deidre Pujols continues to throw heat at human-trafficking crisis with Priceless fundraiser
Deidre Pujlos, left, and Stacy Lewis at the Strike Out Slavery event at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Lewis is a survivor of human trafficking. Deidre Pujols is the wife of first baseman Albert Pujols and founder of the Pujols Family Foundation. (Photo courtesy of April Conn)

Stacy Lewis was 19 when her hellish ordeal began.

She accepted a ride from an elderly man on a Washington, D.C., street.

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As it turned out, the man wasn’t the good Samaritan she thought he was. He was a paid henchman for a sex trafficker.

“I think I know everything,” said Lewis, looking back. “I’m 19, I can handle myself.”

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Lewis was abducted at gunpoint and forced into a nightmare for two years.

When her pimp was arrested, Lewis managed to escape and free herself of the life.

Eighteen years later, she tells her story often, counsels human-trafficking victims and remains a strong advocate for prevention and recovery.

Lewis will be one of the speakers at the sixth annual Priceless luncheon Sept. 22 at the Fashion Island Hotel in Newport Beach.

Organized by Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice, the fundraising event aims to raise awareness for human-trafficking education and prevention.

Deidre Pujols, founder and CEO of Open Gate International, a culinary arts training organization geared toward human trafficking victims, will serve as the keynote speaker. The program helps victims, who are often unemployed, develop life skills.

Pujols was drawn to the cause after meeting Lewis at a human trafficking prayer group.

“One thing was clear, and this was that there is a problem,” the wife of Angels’ first baseman Albert Pujols said. “It’s global. It reaches everywhere. There is not one place it doesn’t go.”

After forming Open Gate International, the couple wanted to create a human-trafficking awareness campaign using baseball as a platform.

So the Pujolses and Orange County District Atty. Tony Rackauckas met with the Angels in 2016 to discuss a partnership and, in 2017, the team hosted the first Strike Out Slavery day — becoming the first Major League Baseball team to take on the issue.

“How to create better awareness and educate our community through a platform like baseball (can have a huge impact),” Deidre Pujols said.

A second Strike Out Slavery Day is scheduled for Sept. 15 at Angel Stadium.

Human-trafficking awareness and prevention should be on par with anti-drug and anti-drunk driving programs in schools, Deidre Pujlos said.

“By investing now, you don’t have a victim,” Sandra Morgan, director of the Global Center for Women and Justice, said. “I want to back the conversation up to, ‘What if they were never in that car.’ ”

Morgan hopes to launch a training program for EMTs and other first-responders on identifying early signs of trafficking victimization.

Runaways, children in the foster system and children in abusive situations at home are particularly vulnerable, Morgan said.

In 2013, the the district attorney formed the Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) Unit, which heavily targets pimps who traffic underage girls.

“The other problem in Orange County is that because we are an entertainment county, we attract pimps who bring their girls here,” Morgan said. “That is one of the things our human-trafficking task force has done well, is to actually make it less desirable for pimps to come. Bottom line, and this goes to Deidre’s Strike Out Slavery, is that if you don’t have a buyer, if you don’t have a sex purchaser, you don’t have demand. There is no child to be sold.”

Lou Ponsi is a TimesOC contributor.

If You Go

What: Priceless, hosted by Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice

Where: Fashion Island Hotel, 690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach

When: Sept. 22,. Check-in is at 10:30 a.m., lunch and the program, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Cost: Tables begin at $180. Underwriting sponsorships begin at $2,500

Information: vanguard.edu/priceless

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