Britney Higgs first heard about the plight of sex-trafficked women a few years ago from a friend who had traveled to India.
“My heart broke for women in trafficking when she told me about the brothels in India,” Higgs said. “She told me what it looks like.”
As Higgs and her husband, Sammy, both filmmakers, did more research, they learned the problem isn’t confined to other countries. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation occurs throughout the United States.
“A lot of these women experienced abuse way before they got into trafficking,” she said. “Some are not trafficked, but the trauma is just as severe.”
Montana is known as a truck stop state, “because of the highways and interstates we have,” Higgs said. The majority of trafficked women are brought to Billings for a week or two while en route to another destination.
The couple sought guidance from Wellspring Living, a similar nonprofit in Atlanta, to learn how to help women wanting to come out of this existence. Three years ago, the Higgses founded Her Campaign, a 501 (c)(3) whose mission is to restore victims of sexual exploitation.
“There’s such a dire need for safe places for these women to go,” she said.
Their next step was to open a safe house for their work, which took them two years to find the house and some of the funding. The day they discovered they had the house, Higgs said, she was sitting in a Starbucks thinking about where to find more money for the work when she got a ping on her phone.
The text was from Dave Shumway, a professional photographer and director of communications for Volunteers of America in Billings. Shumway, who has an array of Canon camera equipment and accessories, had the opportunity to switch to Sony.
He told Higgs he was thinking about offering the equipment to a nonprofit to raffle off. He figured the value of the cameras, lenses and all the rest of the gear at more than $30,000.
“So I texted Dave right after, ‘I know you’re kidding, but let’s do this thing,’ ” she said. “It was a huge blessing.”
For his part, Shumway said he first met Higgs nine years ago when she audited his photography classes at Rocky Mountain College.
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“She was really talented and she really loved photography,” Shumway said. “I kind of pushed her into video.”
Shumway used his Canon equipment primarily for photographing wildlife and landscapes. The gear is perfect for that, he said, although he has also shot sporting events.
“It’s the same that any professional photographer or journalist would want to use for coverage,” Shumway said. “Really, there's not much that can’t be done with that collection.”
Shumway stayed in touch with the couple over the years, hearing more about their nonprofit and helping out when he could. When the opportunity came up to switch from Canon to Sony, he had to decide what to do with his old equipment.
“I’ve traveled the world with this and it’s done a lot of good for me,” he said. “Maybe it could do one more bit of good.”
After Higgs got permission from the state of Montana for the nonprofit to hold the raffle, she and Shumway decided to offer 500 chances to win the equipment for $100 a ticket. So far, 196 have been sold, and the winner will be drawn on May 10.
Anyone interested in buying a ticket may go to the raffle website.
The Her Campaign is already home to its first resident, a woman who started living there Dec. 1. The holistic restoration program includes one-on-one care, Higgs said. There’s a lot of science behind understanding how trauma affects the brain.
“She’s thriving and she’s doing so well,” Higgs said.
They hope with the money raised through the raffle to add a second resident in the home.
“It’s a great opportunity to help out an amazing cause in Billings, and that’s really what I get excited about,’ Shumway said.