TAMPA, Fla. — As Tampa hosts the big game, the world is watching.
Locally, anti-human trafficking nonprofits are keeping a watchful eye away from the glare of the game day lights — and on areas where victims may be sold for sex.
A group of volunteers with HeartDance, founded 13 years ago, visits five local strip clubs once a month. The night typically begins by breaking bread and coming together in prayer before heading out for the night.
One Saturday in January, the team consisted of two veterans, a college student, a dispatcher for an electrical utility, an optician, a speech therapist, a licensed mental health counselor and a mother, anti-human trafficking advocate Dottie Groover-Skipper, the founder of HeartDance and a recipient of the Human Trafficking Advocate of the Year award for the State of Florida.
“Just so they know that they’re not out there alone and that they know they are of great dignity, value and worth,” Groover-Skipper said of the women working in Tampa Bay area clubs.
HeartDance, a partner of the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force, is among a network of nonprofits working to prevent nightmares in the very clubs selling fantasies. The organizations build relationships and provide resources to potential victims of human trafficking.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, who heads up the task force, spoke about the value HeartDance — and similar organizations — bring to the Tampa Bay area.
“These groups really go inside and talk to these ladies that may need some help or someone that they can talk to about why they’re in these clubs. So for law enforcement, these non-government organizations are very helpful to us and to the task force,” Holloway said.
Holloway said the task force, which consists of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, working with organizations providing services to human trafficking survivors, isn’t just focused on big events such as the Super Bowl.
“As you start to really look deeper and deeper into — whether it’s a strip club, whether it’s prostitution, family members, that there are people that are being trafficked out there and it’s for law enforcement and for organizations like that to open their eyes and say, you know what, it’s something that we need to talk about. And it’s something that we need to investigate,” Holloway said.
Each month, HeartDance brings goody bags with items donated from local churches to the women they visit. Those bags can include anything from makeup remover wipes and chapstick, candy and protein bars, shampoo and conditioner, and books for their children.
“We feel like we’re called to do this and the doors open,” Groover-Skipper said.
The strip clubs welcome HeartDance volunteers to meet with the dancers and go back to the dressing rooms. A general manager told the I-Team the women are “phenomenal” and make sure the girls working in the clubs are okay.
“We’re just honored to be able to have access to go into the clubs, the managers loving us coming in, the women love us coming in,” Groover-Skipper said. “We’ve sometimes even been asked the question, ‘You know, you could be anywhere in the world tonight, but you choose to be here for someone like me, why is that?’ So we just want them to know that we see them and we are here for them.”
Groover-Skipper said over the last decade, HeartDance’s monthly visits have built trust.
Ewelina Krzanowska told the I-Team what may seem like simple visits, brings much more than goody bags — they bring hope.
“That is such a huge part of my story that really doesn’t get enough credit,” Krzanowska said, recalling visits from another Tampa Bay area faith-based nonprofit similar to HeartDance. “I think that whenever these ladies would come in, it took a lot of… seeing the constant interactions with us.”
Krzanowska is a survivor. She said addiction to pills led her into what she called a world of darkness at 18 years old.
“When I walked in, it seemed like a dark dungeon,” Krzanowska told the I-Team of a strip club she used to work in.
It was during that time, a volunteer with an outreach group asked her a question: “What did you dream of doing?”
“There is no dreaming. You know, you live one life and there is no future dreaming or hoping or anything like that. So having that ability to have that for five minutes, I think for me is — as I look back — is what really made a difference for me in being able to start trusting them and accepting them coming in,” Krzanowska said. “When she asked me, it stopped me for a moment and it created this image that I lost for so long. And I think it just gave me a feeling of peace.”
Years later, today, Krzanowska is a mother and mentor.
“I think feeling a sense of freedom is knowing I don’t have to go back,” Krzanowska said of her former life. “I’m taking back my power.”
Using that power, Krzanowska now helps others by providing outreach to strip clubs and massage parlors through another Tampa Bay area nonprofit, Created.
“I get to turn around and do the same thing that was done for me. I get to be the next one in line now, to provide a way out,” Krzanowska said. “That fills me up and I could do this for the rest of my life.”
Stories like Krzanowska’s, Groover-Skipper says, are the reason she continues to shine a light on and advocate for human trafficking survivors in Tampa Bay and beyond.
“To see them transform from a victim to a survivor to a thriver, it -- I’m getting emotional now -- it’s one of the greatest joys that I have ever witnessed,” Groover-Skipper said.
If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline or call 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.