Hometown Heroes: The nurse aiming to end child sex trafficking in Hawaii

Updated: Jul. 11, 2019 at 5:24 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Jessica Munoz has been tackling the topic of child sex trafficking in Hawaii for more than a decade.

From the classrooms of Hawaii’s schools to an episode of Hawaii Five-0, her organization, Ho'ōla Nā Pua, has educated more than 30,000 people over the years.

Munoz has become one of the state's leaders in the anti-trafficking movement.

"Hero to me is someone who puts others first, and Jessica is the example of putting others first," said Kelsey Waliszewski, a volunteer at Ho'ōla Nā Pua.

As a nurse practitioner, Munoz says she’s seen many runaway kids end up as victims of sex trafficking.

“When you say the words ‘human trafficking,’ people automatically think we’re talking about another country, we’re talking about girls coming from Korea or Thailand or Cambodia or China. But we’re talking about our local kids,” said Munoz. “And it’s not just on Oahu. It’s on the Big Island, it’s on Kauai, it’s on Maui. It’s even on Molokai.”

Munoz has traveled all over the world to tell that story. She was even featured on an episode of Hawaii Five-0, highlighting the problem in our hometown.

"The Department of Human Services says that within 48 hours of a juvenile being on the run, 30-percent of them will be approached for sex services – and about 70-percent of them will end up in a situation of exploitation out of survival,” Munoz said. “If you look at the fact that Hawaii has 100 to 200 kids who run away every single month ... I would easily say that there's over 2,000 kids that are at risk at any given time and I think that's grossly underestimating."

About 10 years ago, Munoz decided to take awareness into action. Her vision was to create a safe facility where victims of exploitation could find hope and healing.

Today, that vision is becoming a reality.

Pearl Haven – a 32-bed residential treatment campus for highly traumatized teens – would be the first of its kind in the state.

“If you think of how a pearl is formed, an irritant gets in a shell and inside that shell, you don’t see what’s going on but it’s building up layers and layers of protection. And if you looked at that shell, it’s covered in sand or seaweed and it doesn’t look at anything. But when you open it up and remove that pearl and you clean it off and you see wow, it has so much value,” she said.

Munoz says Pearl Haven is scheduled to open in a year and a half.

Hilo resident Bob Waliszewski nominated Munoz as a “Hometown Hero” because of all her dedicated as a volunteer.

"Someone like Jessica who’s a volunteer, who’s got a great heart, who’s already making a difference … it just says your heart is in the right place. You’re there not for the paycheck, you’re there to make a difference,” Waliszewski said. “I just say two thumbs up, Jessica.”

Do you know a Hometown Hero? Tell us about them in an email to hometownheroes@hawaiinewsnow.com.

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