Anja Vanhelden lives in Belgium and is one of the founders of the One-Heart foundation. With this organisation, she gives prevention about things like alcohol, drugs, and sexuality. Their main focus is sexual prevention. One of the reasons they do this is to stop human trafficking at its roots.
One-Heart works on request. Those requests mainly come from schools, youth groups, and after-school programs. Recently the requests have come from Romania a lot. “The after-school programs are often Christian organisations. After school, the children receive a hot meal, and they get help with their homework. Many of the children are underprivileged. Most of the time we spend one or two days there, but we can expand the education as much as they want.”
“We have to work at the source.”
Anja tells how the organisation started. “We saw a need, and it was also a certain heart’s desire what we had. We wanted to so something for a group of people who is kind of forgotten by everyone. From that it grew. We went to the Red Light District, but we said eventually: ‘We have to work at the source, we have to give prevention, because we can go to the Red Light District, but then it is already too late.” After they went to the Red Light District, they started giving counselling. “But you have to start sooner. That is the reason why we, besides still going to the Red Light District and giving counselling, now also work at schools and youth groups.”
In Romania, prevention on subjects like sexuality is almost absent. “They don’t receive it in school, people don’t talk about it.” Anja explains that many children in Romania, especially gypsy children, are sexually ripe much faster than children in most Western countries. “They live in tiny houses where everything happens right before their eyes. They see a lot more, they are confronted with things a lot more.” Children in Romania often have sex from a very young age, without knowing exactly what it is.
What prevention looks like
The first day of giving prevention is like a warming up for the second day. “On the first day, we teach about alcohol, drugs, energy drinks, smoking, that sort of things.” This day is also meant to gain the children’s trust. “The second day is all about sexuality.” On that they, they talk about things like puberty, unwanted intimacy, sexting and the internet, and what sex actually is. Anja explains that the children sometimes have no idea why they have to wash themselves, how often they have to switch a pad during menstruation, or how you can get pregnant. These are all things One-Heart teaches the children. “The things that we find very normal, sometimes they don’t know.”
One-Heart works with children of all ages. “Sometimes we have four-year-olds, sometimes we have fifteen-year-olds. Sometimes we have an entire school in front of us, so then it goes from four to fourteen or sixteen years old.” They adjust their programs to the age of the children they teach to. With four-year-olds, their program may take only 15 minutes. “The older they are, the longer we teach them.” It also depends on how long the place where they come gives them.
“They start to shush other children, because they are afraid to miss what we are saying.”
In the beginning, the children laugh and disrupt the class, but Anja says that the longer they speak, the quieter it gets. “They start to shush other children, because they are afraid to miss what we are saying. They are very curious. The children also notice that they can ask any question to us. There are no dumb questions.”
The prevention is given in a very playful way. “We have a whole program about things like unwanted intimacy. At one point, me and my colleague stand next to each other and I say to the children: ‘This is my best friend, I put my arm around her shoulder, I can do anything, we’re best friends.’ It depends on the age group, of course. Then I ask the children if I’m allowed to touch her head, and her knee, so in a very playful way. Eventually I ask: ‘Can I touch her breasts?’ And there are always a few children who are saying ‘yes’ very certainly.” Children often don’t know their own and others physical boundaries.
Preventing human trafficking
The main goal of One-Heart’s work is to prevent human trafficking. A lot of girls who work in prostitution come from Romania. “We also go to Eindhoven in the Netherlands, to the Red Light District, to visit the women there. From our own experience we know that there are a lot of girls, nowadays also boys, who come from Romania. We even know the villages where most of the girls and boys come from.”
One-Heart teaches children not to go with someone they don’t know, and they teach teenage girls how men can try to pull them into prostitution by making all kinds of promises. “Most of the time, it happens through men offering girls a trip. In Romania, not everyone has a passport, because many people can’t afford it. Those boys then offer to pay for the girls’ passport, but they are the ones that keep it with them. The girls get sold when they arrive at the airport.”
One-Heart also teaches about abortion and how pregnancy works on request. “Abortion is actually illegal in Romania, but it is done constantly. People are told that it is just a bunch of cells. They see a baby of seven months pregnancy as just cells.” Anja tells about a women who was going to have her eighteenth or nineteenth abortion. “I was shocked. Prevention is so needed. They just don’t know it, so you can’t really blame them.”
During their work, Anja experiences God in many different ways. She experiences that with God, she and her team are able to prevent children from getting in a trap of prostitution or sexual abuse, and get other children out. “The children realize that we are real, that we care about them. Sometimes a group of girls or boys sticks around after the lesson and ask questions. When it is possible, we give an extra class to answer their questions.”
“The children realize that we are real, that we care about them.”
“Once we had a boy, fourteen or fifteen years old, he could turn the whole class upside down, and everyone would follow him. At the end of the program, he came up to us and said: ‘You guys are Christians.’ I said: ‘Why do you think that?’ He answered: ‘I can feel that.’ We didn’t talk about Jesus. In many schools we cannot speak about our faith, but we can answer personal questions. That boy came specifically to ask how he could help. We explained him that he had to have respect for girls and women.”
Once a year, they hold a Bible week in Romania, where children can do crafts, receive prevention, and listen to stories from the Bible. The first time they organized it, they suspected there to be ten or twenty children at most. “Eighty children came.” The theme this year was: ‘God loves me.’
When One-Heart comes into classrooms, they often cannot speak about Jesus. But they spread their faith through not condemning the children and loving them, allowing them to feel safe, ask questions, and learn from them. Now, Anja is teaching other people to do the same.
Click here for more information about the One-Heart foundation.