For the second straight year, members of a Brookhaven congregation will gather to stuff “blessing bags” as part of an effort to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
This year, they’ll have more help.
Brookhaven Christian Church is hosting the blessing bag event from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on March 29 in partnership with Street Grace, an organization that aims to end the sexual trafficking of children.
Last year, Brookhaven Christian was the first of Street Grace’s partner churches to host the event. This year, three other houses of worship – Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead, The Temple in Midtown, and North Brook United Methodist Church in East Cobb – will hold similar events.
Greg Chevalier, coordinator of the program for Brookhaven Christian, said one factor that makes children susceptible to sexual predators is hunger. For some kids, being out of school for Spring Break could mean they no longer have access to regular meals.
“When they’re not in school, their vulnerability increases significantly,” Chevalier said.
That’s where the bags come in. They contain non-perishable food items such as pretzels, applesauce, pop-top cans of ravioli and bottles of water, so kids will have enough food to eat while they are off from school for Spring Break.
“The criminals that run that business, they’re very aware of what makes those children vulnerable. They know how to seek them out,” Chevalier said. “We provide them with the food to remove that vulnerability.”
The goal this year is to make 11,000 blessing bags – up from 1,500 last year.
“This year we really stepped it up,” Chevalier said.
Chevalier said he hopes that including other churches and synagogues in the program this year will help raise awareness about the prevalence of the sexual exploitation of children in the Atlanta area. “There was very little awareness and even less acknowledgement that this issue exists either in the city of Atlanta or the state of Georgia,” Chevalier said.
He hopes people who volunteer to assemble the bags will get involved in other programs to help the cause. “We want the blessing bags program to be a conduit to a lot of different discussions,” Chevalier said.
Chevalier also serves on the state of Georgia’s CSEC Task Force, an acronym which stands for Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.
Through the task force, Chevalier has helped create a curriculum to educate organizations such as schools, neighborhoods, corporations and governments about the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Chevalier, who lives in Brookhaven, has helped the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association go through the training course. He is also talking with Brookhaven Police Chief Gary Yandura and Councilman Joe Gebbia about conducting training for city officials and police.
In 2008, Yandura, then police chief in College Park, was appointed to the General Assembly’s joint study commission on the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Yandura said people need to be aware that this issue isn’t confined to just one part of town.
“Any area in the metro Atlanta area has the potential for that going on,” Yandura said. “I think the problem is it’s actually out there and more prevalent than most people realize.”