This February, Jessica learned that she had received a 2014 Prudential Spirit of Community Award for outstanding volunteer work; she was chosen as the top high-school-aged volunteer in California for this year.
Every year, the award recipients — one middle school and one high school student from each state and from the District of Columbia — receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion, and an all-inclusive trip to Washington, D.C., to attend a series of national recognition events.
The award honors Jessica, an Atherton resident, for her work to combat sex-trafficking worldwide. That work began in Costa Rica, where Jessica volunteered at a safe house for sex-trafficking victims on a church mission trip in July 2012. While working at the safe house, Jessica befriended a 17-year-old girl named Eva, with whom she has remained in contact.
"Even though we come from polar opposite worlds," Jessica says, "we've found that not much (is) different between us. We both struggle with gender dynamics, family problems, and friend drama, and we have seen money — or a lack thereof— do some terrible things."
When her trip ended, Jessica invited Eva to visit California, where the two held a cocktail party fundraiser for the safe house in October 2012 and raised $29,000.
Despite the event's success, Eva relapsed and ran away from the safe house soon after returning to Costa Rica. Her friend's struggle led Jessica to realize that "money really can't solve problems." Instead, Jessica decided, "I needed to act for justice."
Jessica conducted research into global networks of sex-trafficking, and held events to educate her school community and her Girl Scout troop on the issue.
In March 2013, she was selected as one of 125 youth delegates from around the world to attend the United Nations' 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. There, she addressed U.N. assembly members on the issue of sex-trafficking.
The following June, Jessica led a youth group she'd assembled to the same Costa Rican safe house she'd visited the summer before to teach the girls there skills like cooking and finance that would prepare them for "a life beyond prostitution."
Today, Jessica and Eva are still in contact over Facebook. "I really hope one day she will return to the safe house," Jessica says. Until that day, Jessica says, she will continue to fight the pernicious system that victimized her friend in the first place, through return trips to the safe house and through internships with organizations such as the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, where she worked last summer.
Reflecting on her efforts so far, Jessica adds, "A lot of schools these days have (community service) requirements. However, I think checking off service hours is so different (from) really understanding (the purpose of) service learning. We must know the meaning of what we're doing before we actually do it; that's the only way to make a lasting impact."
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