A young woman carrying a backpack walked into the Fairmont Dallas bar, sat next to Ashlee Hunt Kleinert ’88 and her husband, Chris ’88, and ordered a glass of water. In her cutoff overalls and tank top, she stood out in the crowd of suits and cocktail attire. The Kleinerts, who were at the downtown hotel for a social event, thought she looked too young to sit at the bar. They guessed she was about 17 or 18.
More conspicuous, though, was the young woman’s trembling discomfort.
“She was constantly looking over her shoulder, scanning the room and scraping her nails along the bar’s surface,” Kleinert remembers. “She seemed terrified.”
Kleinert, a longtime volunteer with New Friends New Life, a faith-based Dallas nonprofit offering a comprehensive program for human trafficking survivors, recognized the behavior of a young woman being exploited.
“Her pimp likely sat among the patrons, keeping watch while she waited to join a john in a hotel room,” Kleinert says.
When her husband suggested passing along a note about New Friends and the phone number, Kleinert hesitated. Through her volunteer work, she knew that if the pimp were watching, such contact could put the trafficking victim in peril. Torn by the possible ramifications of their intervention, the couple decided not to risk placing her life in jeopardy. Eventually she walked out of the bar alone, leaving the Kleinerts with a new perspective on a growing problem that has been termed a global epidemic.
That experience six years ago became their “paradigm shift,” Kleinert says. The real-time glimpse into the darkness amplified her understanding of the women she had met at New Friends, who were rebuilding their lives with the help of counseling, support groups, education and job training.
“It made us sick when we didn’t know what to do,” she says. “We’ve never forgotten her.”
Kleinert first got involved with New Friends through her mother. Nancy Ann Hunter Hunt ’65 co-founded New Friends New Life in 1998 with civic leaders Pat Schenkel and Gail Turner, wife of SMU President R. Gerald Turner. Over the past decade of volunteering with the nonprofit, she has spent time with survivors as she assisted with meals and childcare and listened to their stories. On her own, she has devoured grim statistics about the international criminal scourge that affects millions worldwide.
She has learned a lot about human trafficking, maybe more than she ever wanted to know. On a topic that can be awkward – or even dangerous – to broach in public, Kleinert has become a vocal advocate for victims.
Creating a community that is welcoming to people from all walks of life starts with frank discussions about thorny topics. Since her student days, Kleinert has appreciated the freedom that SMU provides to explore and discuss crucial issues – when she was a student, when her children were students and today.
“SMU students now have such high awareness and regard for human rights issues,” she says.
“It touched me, the way he portrayed history as the lives of real people whom we could learn from,” she says. “Throughout history, individuals have made a difference by speaking up – and they still do now.”
Ashlee and Chris Kleinert were involved with New Friends as their three children were growing up. However, like most kids, it took them a while to recognize their parents’ wisdom.
Their oldest son, Tyler Kleinert ’14, ’15 , earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sport management from SMU and serves as managing director of The Tritex Group, a startup venture firm focused on entrepre- neurial and civic initiatives. The group’s enterprises include Baldo’s Ice Cream & Coffee, a popular artisanal ice cream shop located across from campus on Hillcrest Avenue. An undergraduate economics class taught by Beth Wheaton opened his eyes to the magnitude of the trafficking problem. Wheaton is a senior lecturer of economics in the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences who studies the economics of human trafficking.
“He told me, ‘You’re right, Mom, it’s happening,’” Kleinert recalls about her son’s epiphany. She applauds that “interesting and genius approach” to helping young people grasp the issue through the lens of its everyday economic impact.
Daughter Connie Kleinert Babikian ’12, a senior finance analyst for Hunt Oil Company, holds bachelor’s degrees in finance and economics from SMU and volunteers with New Friends New Life. She served as chair of its 20th anniversary recognition luncheon in 2018.
Their younger son, Travis “T.J.” Kleinert ’16, was motivated by his interest in human rights to pursue a law degree at SMU Dedman School of Law. Now a third-year student, he has provided pro bono legal services for the Genesis Women’s Shelter and Support legal aid program, assisting women with restraining orders and custody rights. He also has volunteered as a children’s activity di- rector at Genesis as well as at St. Philip’s School and Community Center in Dallas.
Kleinert continues a family legacy of taking action where there is need. Her parents, Nancy Ann and Ray L. Hunt ’65, established the Judge B. Elmo Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women at SMU Dedman School of Law in 2014 . The Center is named in honor of Kleinert’s maternal grandfather, a distinguished legal mind and public servant who served as a judge in Western Missouri for 38 years. New Friends New Life refers clients to the clinic, whose services include helping trafficking survivors clear their criminal records.
“Watching the previous generation do something about an issue fosters a feeling of responsibility to pass forward that hands-on, caring style,” Kleinert says.
The work of the Hunter Center and New Friends is more important than ever. The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, describes sex trafficking as modern-day slavery. Traffickers prey on the vulnerable. They groom victims by creating dependency, often providing clothing, food, lodging and emotional support. Once they have established trust, they pressure or coerce victims into prostitution.
Traffickers are always on the prowl for new victims. They often approach runaway teens within their first 48 hours on the street, according to the Dallas Police Department.
The sex trade is big business in Texas. A recent study ranks the state as second in the nation, between California and Florida, for trafficking activity. In Dallas, sex trafficking is a $99 million a year illicit industry, according to a 2014 report funded by the National Institute of Justice.
Addiction, domestic violence, homelessness and other social ills foster the feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability that traffickers home in on, Kleinert says. Once the victim becomes dependent, “a pimp will say, ‘I’ve been taking care of you, and now I need you to help me,’” she says.
She points out that sex trafficking can be more lucrative and less risky than drug trafficking, which carries stiffer criminal penalties in Texas. A person can be sold 10 times per night compared to the one-time sale of cocaine or heroin, Kleinert explains. Also, today’s technology makes it easy for johns to remain anonymous. They can select their victims and pay in cash through websites and mobile apps.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline ranks Dallas as No. 2 in the state for trafficking activity – a stain on the city, as far as Kleinert is concerned. She worries about Dallas becoming defined by it.
“Trafficking is evil,” she says. “A perpetrator sells human beings like commodities and eventually discards them like trash.”
While the topic of sex trafficking can be a conversation killer, it’s too important to avoid. Dodging it doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist, Kleinert says. “Sex trafficking thrives in the dark,” she says. “Awareness, education and dialogue light the path to stop it.”
She embraces opportunities to talk about New Friends New Life’s restorative programs and encourage the public to become involved. However, she’s careful to assess her audience first.
“I’ve learned to gauge interest in how much they want to know,” she says.
More often than not, people want to learn about the crime that hides in plain sight, she says. To engage as many people as possible in their efforts, New Friends created a men’s auxiliary in 2015, the Men’s Advocacy Group. Chris Kleinert served as the organization’s inaugural chair.
The group spells out its mission as mobilizing men “to take action against sex trafficking and exploitation by raising awareness through advocacy, education and volunteerism.” A key component of its educational focus is the manKINDness Project, an interactive learning curriculum aimed at teens and young men. It’s designed to challenge masculinity myths and nurture respect for females and one another. MAG volunteers lead young men to connect the ways demeaning language, including obscene comments and jokes, attitudes and behaviors contribute to an environment where sex trafficking is ignored or tolerated.
Last year, Kleinert partnered her popular Ruthie’s Rolling Café food trucks with Dallas’ Café Momentum, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth, many of whom are homeless and vulnerable to traffickers. Graduates from that organization’s culinary training program can secure paid externships on the food trucks. “We talk about signs of human trafficking with our employees,” she said. “Unfortunately some of these kids have been on the inside of it.”
Sex trafficking happens everywhere and touches all parts of society, Kleinert says. “It’s hard not to see trafficking, once you know the signs.”
A case in point: Kleinert contacted authorities after observing a suspicious situation at a Dallas-area business park where the Ruthie’s business offices were located in 2011. She reported an uptick in parking lot traffic and a sudden surge of men frequenting a neighboring office space. After a period of surveillance, law enforcement shut down what was, indeed, a trafficking operation.
To raise awareness, New Friends New Life and the Men’s Advocacy Group sponsor a free monthly bus tour guided by representatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Participants observe telltale signs of human trafficking and exploitation while learning about real cases worked by Dallas law enforcement.
Kleinert advocates bringing as many people as possible, especially those who regularly deal with the public, into the conversation. Electricians, plumbers and other trades professionals can be trained to spot red flags, such as a private residence housing an unusual number of young women.
In recent years, flight attendants have made headlines by spotting teens being trafficked, which points to the importance of training those in the airline, transportation and hospitality industries to learn the signs and join the fight.
“Everyone can be part of the turnaround,” Kleinert says.
– By Cherri Gann ’15
In 2015, Robbie Hamilton turned to SMU’s Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women for help in cleaning up the criminal record she acquired over 25 years of working in Dallas strip clubs, battling drug addiction and experiencing repeated arrests for drug possession. On January 11, 2020, on Human Trafficking Awareness Day, she was issued a full pardon by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott after a unanimous vote by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The pardon wiped away convictions for petty crimes that were the final trace of a dark era in her life.
“I’m humbled and thrilled with this. It seems like the beginning of something bigger,” says Hamilton, a youth mentor and survivor advocate at New Friends New Life, the Dallas-based nonprofit that offers a comprehensive program for formerly trafficked women and children.
The Hunter Legal Center, established in 2014 with a gift from alumni Ray L. ’65 and Nancy Ann Hunter Hunt ’65, is named in honor of Mrs. Hunt’s father, a distinguished judicial leader and public servant who served as a judge in Western Missouri for 38 years. The clinic’s services include helping trafficking survivors determine whether their criminal record convictions can be cleared either by order of nondisclosure or expungement. As public information, criminal records appear on housing, employment and other background checks and get in the way when victims try to rebuild their lives.
“Since its founding, the Hunter Center has worked to ensure that survivors of human trafficking do not carry the burden of criminal convictions resulting from their victimization,” says Natalie Nanasi, director of the Hunter Legal Center and assistant professor of law.
For about four years, Hamilton worked with Nanasi and student attorneys who filed legal petitions to seal or expunge five convictions from her record, including three of her four felonies. In 2017, student attorneys began using the web-based Texas Fresh Start Application, a legal app developed by Dedman School of Law students to streamline the process.
“We have successfully represented many clients like Robbie and celebrate this hard-earned victory,” Nanasi says. “We will continue representing survivors, removing hurdles that inhibit their ability to move past the trauma they endured.”
Student attorneys in the Hunter Legal Center also engage in advocacy efforts, educating Texas lawmakers about the need to expand eligibility for post-conviction relief. “We will keep speaking out about this important issue,” Nanasi says. “And joining with partners, advocates and lawmakers to ensure that criminal histories cease to be a barrier to survivors’ healing.”
For Hamilton, the pardon vindicates her own hard work and the persistence of her legal team and New Friends colleagues. “This feels like being part of a shift toward seeing that women are the victims in trafficking and exploitation, not the criminals,” she says.
Now free to live wherever she likes, Hamilton plans to find a new apartment. She also wants to join a Dallas-based ministry that assists the homeless – an opportunity previously barred by her criminal record.
“I’m holding my head up higher,” she says. “I can look the world in the eye and know I have every opportunity that others do.”
– By Cherri Gann ’15