The Angels’ press conference room was practically empty when I arrived this morning, but it would soon see writers, photographers and other cogs from 20 or so media outlets filing in, grabbing some coffee or bottled water, and claiming their space. The usual exchange of pleasantries between writers, top Halos brass and other familiar faces filled the room with a laid back, jovial spirit, and the time left on the clock before things got underway seemed to fly right on by. I had a wry smile on my face, make no mistake; it’s a pretty fun room to spend some time in.
Then, within minutes of Albert Pujols, his wife Deidre Pujols, Lita Mercado (program director of community service programs for the O.C. task force), and Stacy Jewell Lewis (a courageous and outspoken survivor of human sex trafficking) taking the stage, the mood would turn, and baseball suddenly got as far from my thoughts as possible.
Mercado was the first to speak, and she got right to the point, sharing the harrowing ordeal of a 12 1⁄2 year old girl who, in 2002, was rescued from the garage of a nice, upper-middle class home, in one of the myriad Orange County gated communities. It’s the same type of home I’ve been in hundreds of times while visiting friends or family, but inside this particular dwelling, there was a young girl who was forced to do slave labor, was abused, was not allowed to leave the home, and was not allowed to attend school.
It’s hard to sit, listen and process that type of horror and pain when it’s inflicted on ANYBODY, but when you’re told the victim was just a kid, the crime suddenly feels like it’s gone beyond reprehensible, and into a new category of evil. I squirmed in my chair, and messed around with the bottle cap on my water bottle, nervously twisting it off and twisting back on.
This type of reaction is exactly what Deidre Pujols wants, though, and that’s the primary goal of her and her husband’s new initiative, Strike Out Slavery. Minutes later, she would be telling us all that “It’s about bringing human trafficking into our lives, and out of the shadows”, and that’s what brought those 20 outlets to the Big A on a Thursday morning in August.
The Pujols family, with the help of people like Mercado, as well as local law enforcement and their anti-human trafficking task forces, such as PERP (Prosecution/Education/Resources/Publicity) , are on a mission to make people aware of what is happening, unbeknownst to most people, in our communities. It SHOULD make us uncomfortable, but that will hopefully lead to more awareness, and more awareness can lead to more direct action to fight the monster known as human trafficking.
Human trafficking, which is basically modern day slavery, can manifest in two major ways: Through sex work, or through basic labor, but in either scenario, we’re talking about people who are abducted and/or coerced into a life of unspeakable, never-ending hell; just like that 12 year old girl who was going through some ghastly days and nights, all while smiling, happy OC residents did their own thing on the other side of the garage door that served as a makeshift prison wall.
Orange County, unsurprisingly, is a human trafficking destination; the affluence could be one of the alluring aspects, but whatever the reason, it’s here and it’s not going anywhere unless we can attack the problem with every weapon, resource and ounce of courage we have at our disposal. Deidre Pujols learned about this depressing societal scourge in the most up close and personal way possible: She went on a life-changing trip to parts of the world most of us would be too scared to step foot in, places that live and feed off of the human trafficking underworld.
At one point, she went to a safe house in Mexico City, and it showed her that people like her CAN make a difference and actually help the lives of those affected. This safe house and its purpose is clear: To give human trafficking survivors a place to live, and a shot at escaping their old life for good.
Pujols would see more and more things in her time learning about the human trafficking cause, and ultimately she would find herself back in the states, energized and itching to take the fight to the perpetrators of these callous crimes, and more importantly, giving the women that have been rescued from said perpetrators all the support and resources they need to start over fresh in this world.
“Basically, after my travels, I began to ask myself ‘what can I do about this?’, based off who I am, my talent, my skills, and where I was in life...what could I do about it?....Naturally, for me, it was thinking about our platform in baseball. So, I went to MLB and had some conversations with them and with Albert.”
The idea was starting to take shape, all in about a year’s time; her and her superstar husband set out to start Strike Out Slavery, and their first move was to, of course, reach out to the Angels. Her, Albert, Tim Mead, John Carpino and other Angels executives and staff had a round table discussion, where they set out to tackle trafficking by putting it front and center at the Big A. If all goes well, then it’s on to the National’s home field, in Washington, D.C.
But what’s their plan, exactly? Well, it all starts with a massive fundraising effort, which officially started on August 4th via the CrowdRise online funding platform, and is called the Hero + Living Legend Experience. Fans have the chance to donate at least $10 for the opportunity to win an all-expenses paid trip to Angels Stadium for two, a diner with The Machine himself, a two night stay at The Portofino Hotel, two suite tickets to the 9/16 game, an invitation to throw out the first pitch, a ton of autograph swag and two Diamond Club tickets for the game the following day.
Plus, the first 10 people to donate $500 will get a baseball signed by Albert Pujols, and the first 5 people to donate $1500 will get a special Home Run #600 bat, signed by Pujols himself. All of this can be found at their website, strikeoutslavery.com.
On top of that, Strike Out Slavery is inviting fans to get in on the 1000 seats they have reserved in sections 257-260, for a game-day special rate of $17.50 per ticket. You’ve got to get those tickets in advanced, before September 2nd, at strikeoutslavery.com, as well.
The goal is to get to $400,000, and that money will benefit eight international anti-human trafficking charities, and it will all culminate at the Big A on September 16th. That’s when Mr. and Mrs. Pujols, along with their courageous and badass Strike Out Slavery team will be in attendance, ready to plant the seed of human trafficking activism in the heads of all the Angels fans that will be attendance.
There will be pre-game activities for the whole family that include safety education and free child ID cards. There will also be local nonprofit organizations, who fight human trafficking, representing with booths set up to hand out information and get the fans even more knowledgeable about this rough subject.
That’s a lot of seriousness for an Angels game, sure, but once you’ve done some reading or listened to survivors tell their story, you realize it’s absolutely necessary. It’s still a baseball game, though, so there will still be fun to be had, and to close out the big event on a high note, the Angels and Strike Out Slavery are going to put on a post-game concert at the stadium, featuring multi-platinum and Grammy-nominated recording artist and award-winning songwriter Nick Jonas!
“The ultimate defender of this fight is going to be awareness”, a remark made by Deidre Pujols that makes tons of sense when put against the average person’s penchant for disregard or ignorance on such a tough subject. She and the Strike Out Slavery group want to use the “force of the community” to get the issue out there in the open, in our backyards, so to speak.
This point was driven home either further by Susan Kang Schroeder, the chief of staff for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckus. She took the microphone towards the end of the press conference, and said “Human trafficking” softly and shyly into the mic. That was followed by her saying it again, but this time in a booming, powerful voice.
She let us know that’s how we need to approach the subject; we must get it out in the open, and into the ears of men and women throughout Orange County, because with more awareness comes more publicity and more resources, and also, it means more convictions and prison time for the bad guys.
It’s working, too, according to some numbers that Lita Mercado had read out loud. There are more human traffickers going to prison for longer sentences, sometimes life, and there are more victims getting supportive services each and every year. Strike Out Slavery people put this development all on that one important word: Awareness.
MLB, and the Angels in particular, are a great tool to use in this regard; it’s quite the megaphone that can be used for good, but that doesn’t mean Deidre Pujols isn’t aware of the apprehension and blowback they could receive from fans who just want to watch some baseball, and not get inundated with such heaviness.
Pujols took on the tone of such a fan, saying “Some may say ‘I didn’t want to hear these things aid at the baseball game’. I would encourage people to not be afraid. If it’s piercing you at some level, then my hope is that it would tell you to want to find out a little bit more. That’s a good time to educate yourself and your family...I know as a parent, that my best bet is to raise awareness and educate my children.”
The Strike Out Slavery initiative KNOWS that it will make some people uneasy, but when we’re facing such demons as sex and labor trafficking in our country, you can’t sweep them under the rug or look the other way, at least not if we wish to be able to do some good to combat those demons. On September 16th, the Big A will become an incubator of awareness that could lead to some striking changes in our neighborhoods and the lives of those that go unseen and unheard all too often.
During the press conference, when Albert Pujols was speaking, he looked over at his wife in loving amazement and called her “the real Wonder Woman”. When you see the passion and fire she has for such an important cause, and the way in which she’s brought voices, survivors and fighters of human trafficking together to work together towards a shared goal, it’s hard to disagree with him.
About Strike Out Slavery
Strike Out Slavery was created by Albert and Deidre Pujols in 2017 with the goal of raising awareness about the existence of modern-day slavery and raising funds for major organizations fighting this insidious crime internationally. Go to www.strikeoutslavery.com for more information.