The Red Light Districts of Bangkok, Thailand—replete with strip clubs and prostitutes—are not where most Colby students go for Jan Plan. But that’s exactly where Bill Stauffer ’89 took four students for two days last January.

Stauffer wanted them to see Bangkok’s sex industry firsthand, he said, before beginning their internships in northern Thailand at an NGO called The Freedom Story, which works to prevent Thai children from being exploited in cities like Bangkok. Keeping young kids from ever entering the industry is crucial, Stauffer said, because “once someone is in the trauma of the sex industry, I don’t know if they ever fully escape it.

“I love what The Freedom Story does because prevention, while not as dramatic as raiding or rescuing,” he said, after returning from the volunteer trip, “is a lot more effective.”

Kevin Munoz ’20, one of the interns, said Stauffer was instrumental in letting students think about what was happening in the Red Light Districts, to help prepare them for their internship in Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, where most of the boys and girls in the sex industry are recruited.

Stauffer, an entrepreneur who owns an LED lighting company in Portland, Maine, facilitated the internships through DavisConnects following a suggestion from Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Sonja Thomas, in whose class he had been a guest lecturer on human rights. It was vital, they concluded, that the discussions be followed by real-world experience.

“We took whatever path was open as long as it involved getting students to Thailand and exposing them to the situation there,” Stauffer said.

An East Asian studies major at Colby, Stauffer’s interest in the economics of the sex industry began during his Colby junior year abroad in Thailand and Taiwan, when a professor encouraged him to explore the topic in a paper. “My thesis was ‘sex tourism and the foreign visitor,’” he recalled. His conclusion? Once Thailand’s economy grew, the sex industry would diminish as the country lifted its population out of poverty.

He was wrong.

“Prevention, while not as dramatic as raiding or rescuing, is a lot more effective.” —Bill Stauffer ’89

Volunteer Bill Stauffer ’89 with Colby students who did internships with The Freedom Story, an NGO that fights sex trafficking

Volunteer Bill Stauffer ’89 with Colby students who did internships with The Freedom Story, an NGO that fights sex trafficking

Students in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Colby students took part in an effort to create alternatives to the sex industry, which draws many Thai girls and women who see no other options to escape poverty.

Students in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Colby students took part in an effort to create alternatives to the sex industry, which draws many Thai girls and women who see no other options to escape poverty.

At the time, in 1988, sex tourism accounted for 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Now it’s 13 percent, Stauffer said, a fact glaringly apparent when he began traveling to Asia later in life for business, and when he and his wife, Anne (Webster ’89), adopted two girls from China.

“I saw that the problem of sexual exploitation wasn’t actually diminishing,” he said. “It was actually growing as China became wealthy, as Thailand became wealthy.” Stauffer dove back into the issue in 2013 by volunteering with and fundraising for The Freedom Story, an organization he selected because of its success in addressing the main reason for exploitation—poverty.

The Freedom Story initially just offered educational scholarships to needy students. Now it includes a resource center, a human rights program, a sustainability program, and a staff of 23. “At the core of the work we do … is build the resilience of children and communities,” said The Freedom Story president Rachel Goble, who was at Colby with Stauffer in April.

The organization’s results are impressive. In northern Thailand, about half of children drop out by grade six, Goble said. “For our organization, we’ve seen that go down to six and a half percent.” And as far as she knows, none of their students have been trafficked in the last year.

The Colby students played a role in this success. “Sex trafficking is ugly, dirty,” said intern Grace Yu ’19, who worked as an ethical storyteller, which called for her to consider the young people in a broader context. “But you’re not telling the kids how awful the world is. Instead, we’re giving them hope that they can still do what they want to do in the future.”

Facilitating the internships was rewarding, Stauffer said. “If I can open a door and make the connection, I’m happy with that,” noting that he and Goble are exploring other ways to send Colby students to Chiang Rai in the future.

When Stauffer reunited with the students in April, he gave each a big hug. “They give me a renewed hope,” he said, “that there are some good young people that both care about the issues and are building the skill set … to try to solve or mitigate the exploitation.”