For the majority of high school basketball players talented enough to receive athletic scholarship offers to play the game at the next level, the most difficult decision to make typically isn’t whether or not to accept an offer, but instead, which college to attend. Urbana native Michelle (Hunsberger) Zook, however, is one of the exceptions.
Instead of accepting a verbal offer to play college basketball at Edison Community College in Piqua on a full-ride scholarship, the 2002 graduate of West Liberty-Salem High School said God had a different path carved out for her – one that involved helping others, specifically women in the sex industry and victims of sex trafficking.
“When I first heard about sex trafficking I knew this was an awful injustice I wasn’t willing to stand by and allow to happen without fighting against it,” Zook said. “Women are not objects. We are not toys. Sex trafficking and porn, which are often linked, treat women like objects.”
Growing up in Urbana, Zook said, the majority of her teenage years were spent on the basketball and volleyball courts, but that all changed during her junior year in 2001 when a friend invited her to take part in a mission trip to Russia, a trip that changed her life forever.
“I stayed there one month volunteering at a summer orphanage camp,” she said. “Something big changed inside me. God was calling me to a specific calling, and it all started there.
“Holding those orphans, seeing how little they had compared to me, and experiencing their love when they gave me a gift in spite of their life conditions, took me from a selfish teenager to a young woman with a purpose.”
That purpose – helping others – quickly became Zook’s life calling. Instead of attending college on a basketball scholarship, Zook packed her bags after receiving her high school diploma and headed overseas for a nine-month mission trip to China where she once again worked in a orphanage.
“It wasn’t until 2012 that God led me in the direction of sex trafficking and women, but there was a reason for that,” Zook said. “I had some life lessons to learn first.”
Making a difference
For the past four-plus years, with her husband, Rueben, and their three children by her side, Zook has been helping women not only in the sex industry find a different career path, but also women who have become sex-trafficking victims.
After founding the We Care Ministry Outreach in Oregon in 2012, the Zooks spent two years helping individuals working in the sex industry moving the ministry and focusing on the global problem of sex trafficking.
According to the International Labour Organization, nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor worldwide, and 4.5 million of those individuals are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
In 2014, the Zooks decided to take their ministry to an area of the world with a high rate of human-trafficking victims – Southeast Asia.
“We, as a family, visited four different countries in Southeast Asia praying and asking God for direction as to where he wanted us,” said Zook, who due to the nature of the work, asked that her family’s location not be published. “My only stipulation was it needed to be somewhere where I could do work with sex trafficking and women in the sex industry.”
So what type of services does the We Care Ministry Outreach provide?
“I go into brothels, clubs and areas of local prostitution looking for ways to help the women,” Zook said. “We bring them a simple gift bag and hope that through this gift they will feel our love and see we are there to help and love them. My good work is to help in freeing women, helping restore their true identity and purpose, and to help in bringing healing from the injustices of life they have endured.
“We also offer them medical care, free HIV testing, medication and routine checkups for women. I also teach English at a safe house for those who have been rescued from sex trafficking,” said Zook, who added her husband lends a hand in the ministry outreach effort by talking with pimps and drug dealers.
While the Zooks belong to a worldwide organization known as YWAM (Youth With A Mission), all the work they currently do in Southeast Asia is on a volunteer basis.
“Friends, people who long to make a difference through sending us, and family, help make this possible by donating finances,” Zook said.
Speaking engagement, preventive measures
The Zooks, back in the United States until the end of July, will share their experiences of the past two-and-a-half years in Southeast Asia during a program scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday at the River of Life Christian Center, 775 Washington St. in Urbana.
Any groups or individuals interested in learning more about the work the Zooks are doing can email them to set up a meeting at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Trafficking in Southeast Asia seems far away, but it doesn’t just impact us. Trafficking is a worldwide issue, and unless we all fight together, this will not be abolished,” Zook said. “As we fight for change, let’s also fight for our families.”
To help prevent younger generations from becoming a statistic in the human-trafficking trade, Zook said, parents don’t need to do anything difficult. Simply being there for their children and taking an interest in what their children are doing goes a long way, she said.
“Relationships with our kids is so important,” Zook said. “Children that come from healthy families are less likely to listen to lies or fall prey to the traps the traffickers contrive.
“Have the hard conversations with your kids. Dads, win the hearts of your daughters,” she added. “Lastly, don’t be afraid to care.”
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.