Jennifer Groff, the community engagement director at The Salvation Army of Greater New York, talks about how social journalism became her path to fighting human trafficking, why Christmas starts early with the Angel Tree program, and life lessons from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Benjamin Franklin.
Ralph Waldo Emerson says that to succeed in life, you must laugh often and much, win the respect of intelligent people, the affection of children, the appreciation of honest critics, and leave the world a bit better through what you do. I think that’s such a beautiful way to define the meaning of life. But I also like how Benjamin Franklin put it; “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
When Major Sue Wittenberg was tasked with creating a new awareness of human trafficking, we collaborated on what would become Pearl Essence, an outreach to the women in Brooklyn, N.Y., who are forced to work in massage parlors. While talking to these women or offering them gifts, we saw joy and gratitude reflected on their faces. It’s a spiritual connection. In the process, I could feel myself becoming a messenger of light. We hope to expand this program to other Salvation Army corps (churches) outside of Brooklyn. There are volunteers at the Queens Temple who are excited to take on this ministry.
Christmas starts in September when we’re working with the Army’s Angel Tree program. That’s when we reach out to corporate partners and share Christmas wishes from 40,000 children in New York. We collect gifts in our “toy shop” on West 14th street in Manhattan. When December comes, we have about 300 volunteers who prepare thousands of toys. People always want to be part of this program; they love the direct connection with children and being able to give them exactly what they want. The thought of children not having a gift under their tree for Christmas is unimaginable, but for many families, it’s very real.
I was honored to be chosen to attend CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Social Journalism program. Most of the students were fresh out of college while I was a mom with work responsibilities. As a class assignment, I learned how human trafficking had moved from overseas to towns in the United States. I traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to meet with human trafficking victims who used writing as a way to cope with their pain. The social journalism program lasted ten months, but it had a great influence on my work today. As I look back, I can see it was God who led my steps and helped me discover my ministry to fight human trafficking.
My seven–year–old son Ryan is the most empathetic person I know. He’s always asking me about the well–being of others and wants to know how he can help them. It’s amazing how much I learn from him. Work, life experiences, and traveling the world can get me far. But as a parent, I learn new lessons in unconditional love.
interview by Hugo Bravo