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Sanibel Secrets: Former mayor combats human trafficking

May 16, 2014
By CRAIG GARRETT ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Right at an age where we're supposed to be pausing to reflect on the road we've traveled, Nola Theiss is stepping on the gas pedal.

At age 66, the former Sanibel mayor and councilwoman is directing a crusade to raise awareness, help prosecute and educate, salvage lives with her Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships (Inc.), a southwest Florida nonprofit working with schools, lawmakers, law enforcement, merchants and others to prevent trafficking and to assist victims of the fallout from abuse.

Before that, Theiss owned a business that translated foreign-language text for craft instructions, raised children, designed craft patterns and wrote books, supported a husband/engineer involved the Apollo space program, worked in desk-top publishing, volunteered on committees and commissions, achieved an advanced degree, otherwise stayed super active, even through serious health issues that sidelined her dervish lifestyle.

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But only temporarily.

Theiss was recently awarded the Silver Good Citizenship Award by the local Sons of the American Revolution for her work in the trafficking campaign. Theiss's husband, Hal, is descended from Irish brothers who served in the American Revolutionary war. The president of the chapter, Lee Matson, noted that Nola Theiss's efforts to fight trafficking and to inform the public about what they could do to assist was "consistent with the mission of the Sons of the American Revolution." The chapter surprised Theiss with the award at an April gathering.

Keeping active is the key to success and a fulfilling life, she said. "You don't want to look out the window and wonder why you're inside."

Fact Box

* Nola Theiss, executive director for the nonprofit Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships (Inc.)

* Former Sanibel mayor/councilwoman

* Agency trains and educates on human trafficking


* (877) 395-1737/(239) 415-2635

Theiss's latest endeavor confronts trafficking, more commonly identified as the sex trades or human slavery, an issue that's global but has very real roots in our state. It's estimated that thousands of girls and boys are in Florida practicing prostitution and other forms of abuse and victimization, many with little understanding of right and wrong behavior. Many are foreign born, but a portion are disaffected or runaway Floridians.

It's the trafficker who understands this adolescent confusion, Theiss said, preying on the innocent, introducing drugs and disease, destroying lives in concentric circles. Theiss discovered this dark world at a 2004 women's conference in New York City. She immediately approached Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott, who in turn formed a task force to offer police and health services to assist the victims, confront the issue and the law-breakers. She has formed coalitions with other groups like Lee Memorial to address social problems.

Theiss has since visited with many hundreds of school children, sports leagues, clubs, sharing programs to help kids and teens understand the risks they may confront in the mean streets. She uses child-friendly tools like art to address abuse, also offering trainer the trainer programs to spiderweb the information to as many sources as can be reached. Her group offers some 24 programs to help in reducing the risks to children, to identify symptoms and potential signs of victimization. Coalition efforts have been rewarded in recent years with arrests and imprisonment of Florida traffickers, but also with the transition of many of the victims to normalcy, she said.

"Some of the children (in abusive/predator relationships) know they have a problem but don't do anything about it," Theiss said. "It's at that point it's hard to pull them out of it. But we have successes."

Theiss's team in the early years of her effort approached fast-food franchise management and workers, trying to create awareness in identifying possible victims of human trafficking. In the ensuing years she has worked with medical, hospitality and library staff in building awareness for trafficking, prostitution and other possible victims and predators. Prostitutes often conduct business in public places, she said, and are frequently in emergency centers for crisis or disease treatment.

"It has been a tough sell, a controversial thing," Theiss said of educating service workers, "because most employees are not going to know or report what they see."

Nola Theiss's hectic pace and passion may have caused a serious health issue a few years ago. It forced her to pause, to consider what's important.

"I learned about my limits," she said. "To be more conscious to take care of myself. But it didn't stop me."

And her message to those on the sidelines, perhaps fearful of the consequences and commitment to volunteerism?

"You can do a lot more than you think you can" she said. "You are, actually, very valuable."



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