USDA Grant to Help Human Trafficking Survivors Learn 3D Printing Skills


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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Somerset Community College (SCC) in Kentucky have found a way to support victims of human trafficking and poverty thanks to a new partnership with two organizations focused on helping those in need in Kentucky, especially in rural regions. The initiative, known as “Elevate Kentucky through Additive Manufacturing,” will provide 3D printing equipment, training, and support to Refuge for Women, the nation’s largest recovery program for human trafficking victims, and Red Bird Mission, a Kentucky-based Christian organization supporting those in need. The year-long training project began in February 2022 to see new 3D printed solutions and products proposed by the participants as early as June.

With an estimated 24.9 million victims worldwide at any given time, human trafficking is a crime that takes place across borders and can be very hard to prosecute. Criminals prey on adults and children of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities, exploiting them for their own profit, but most trafficking victims are women and girls. Particularly in Kentucky, a Catholic Charities of Louisville program reported that 332 trafficking victims had been identified since 2008, while the National Human Trafficking Hotline detected over 100 calls from victims and survivors in 2020. In fact, just last year, one multistate human trafficking sting resulted in the rescuing of more than 20 victims.

Aside from increasingly identifying survivors, raising awareness about human trafficking, and educating the public to identify and prevent this crime, plenty can be done to help survivors recover and rebuild their lives. That’s why programs like SCC’s 3D printing initiative are so important.

“We often see a great deal of news about 3D printing being used by the big industries, but it is important for us not to forget that this is also a technology for everyone, and from every walk of life,” describes Eric Wooldridge, Director of SCC’s Additive Manufacturing Center and leader of the project. “Sure, it certainly has the power to transform rockets and cars, but it also has the power to transform the life of a single, unique individual. To give someone that literally has nothing, not just a chance at a brand new career, but an opportunity to seize an idea or a dream and make it into a reality. That is the type of work that brings real meaning to what we do.”

Wooldridge also points out that the long view of economic growth is through the empowerment of a single individual. “This often results in that individual generating a new idea, leading to a new export, and ultimately creating a small, positive economic impact for a region. But as we all know, enough small impacts added together equal something big.”

Eric Wooldridge, Professor of Digital Printing Technology 3D Printing.

Eric Wooldridge, Professor of Digital Printing Technology 3D Printing. Image courtesy of Somerset Community College.

The “Elevate Kentucky through Additive Manufacturing” project will provide 3D printing equipment, training, and marketing consultation services to the women of Refuge for Women. With ten sites across the country (including several in Kentucky), the nonprofit supports women that come from some of the most severe conditions imaginable, empowering them to live a life of freedom through faith-based, residential healing programs. In addition, by providing the women with cutting-edge manufacturing capabilities in additive and parametric modeling, the project is enhancing their manufacturing abilities and preparing them for careers in STEM, especially since knowledge of 3D printing has become a valued tool for many jobs in almost any industry imaginable.

The training will focus on parametric modeling using Autodesk Fusion 360, a powerful design-and-make tool that combines computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), computer-aided engineering (CAE), and printed circuit board (PCB) design on one platform. This tool can help upskill and digitize their skillsets, creating opportunities for a future career in advanced manufacturing. Autodesk has been a stalwart supporter of SCC’s work and the additive manufacturing movement for many years, including giving free access to its products and services to eligible students and educators through its educational plan.

Mainly within the age range of 18 to 35, the women of Refuge for Women have been rescued from the continental, human trafficking (particularly sex trade) industries. According to the organization, these victims are rescued with only the clothing on their backs before they “begin a journey of restoration, education, and healing.” In addition, to support the development of employable skills, the women will work to manufacture and sell goods for the organization’s social enterprise line called Survivor Made, which sells products handcrafted by survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation while still residents at the nonprofit’s facility.

Handcrafted products by survivors of human trafficking.

Handcrafted products by survivors of human trafficking. Image courtesy of Survivor Made.

As part of the project, the grant will also support Kentucky’s Red Bird Mission. The 100-year old organization has been providing ministries and aid in the Appalachian Mountain region––which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country––through education, health, economic opportunities, and housing improvements. In addition, the Red Bird Mission-sponsored Craft Marketing Program, which provides an avenue for local artisans to market their products, will benefit from the “Elevate Kentucky through Additive Manufacturing” project by devoting additive manufacturing techniques that could help artisan product lines as well as introduce new concepts to the market such as “Smart Art” – digitally active artisan products.

Additionally, Kentucky businesses that support and employ individuals that have been victims of human trafficking and those from impoverished regions which have received training in 3D printing will benefit from their knowledge and understanding of advanced manufacturing technologies.

Wooldridge hopes that from the potential impact and lessons learned from this project, he can present this concept to larger non-governmental Organizations and reach more individuals within rehabilitation programs and opportunity areas across the nation. However, Wooldridge and his team have also pointed out that without funding partners like USDA truly investing in grassroots-level changes, opportunities like this would remain forever unrealized. For now, it seems this small project could be the initial push that nonprofits like Refuge for Women need to provide women who have survived human trafficking with a great skill set that will help them rebuild their lives.

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