A Priceless Penny

TODAY’S IDYLLIC ASPIRATIONS TO MAKE A LASTING IMPACT ARE EASILY DIVERTED BY THE OF-THE-MOMENT GLITZ AND GLAM, WHILE THE UNVALUED AND INVISIBLE REMAINS JUST THAT.

KENDALL ALTMYER’S PASSION TO FIGHT HUMAN TRAFFICKING IS A REMINDER THAT OFTEN THE MOST REMARKABLE JOURNEY COMES FROM SEEING VALUE IN THE WHAT MANY WOULD CONSIDER MOST COMMON.

photography by Dan Austin

The Lakelander: How did you come to create The Penny Story?

Kendall Altmyer: The first seed of The Penny Story was planted in 2013 when I took a class called Human Trafficking in America, as a senior at Southeastern University. It was in that class that the professor analogized trafficking victims to pennies — that both were common but unvalued and nearly invisible. I have never seen a penny in the same way. From then on, I picked up pennies I saw on the ground and prayed for trafficking victims, that the Lord would set them free.
Later that year, I lived in Greece for several months to work with the A21 Campaign, whose mission is to abolish the injustice of trafficking in the 21st century. I saw firsthand how worthless, unvalued, and invisible the victims felt. It was then that I began to make bracelets out of pennies to raise awareness of human trafficking. In October 2013, The Penny Story began to sell bracelets with the word “WORTHY” stamped under Lincoln. The proceeds support the A21 Campaign.

TL: Although the tragedy of human trafficking has garnered some attention in recent years, many people still aren’t aware of the scope of the problem. Tell us more about that.

KA: The penny and human-trafficking analogy is so apt because the crime of human trafficking is largely imperceptible, yet it’s everywhere. It’s in Polk County, it’s in Lakeland, it’s all around the world. People in every country are affected by it, but it’s often quite hard to recognize to a person who’s not trained to see it. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell that they are sharing an aisle in the store with a girl, or a boy, who’s a trafficking victim. So victims are everywhere, but they aren’t walking around in physical chains or handcuffs or with a trafficker dragging them around.

TL: Are you able to spot some of those nearly imperceptible signs of a trafficking victim because of your experience?
KA: Well, I can’t speak on behalf of someone — perhaps law enforcement or a doctor — who is formally trained to recognize the signs, but from my experience with rescued victims, there are some very small indicators. Lack of eye contact in conversation, a story about what she’s doing or where she’s from that doesn’t really make sense, skittishness or anxiety, or looking around during the conversation as if she’s frightened someone is watching her are all potential signs of victimization. But, of course, you can’t know for sure from those things. We might correctly dismiss those behaviors as a lack of social skills or just a bad day. That’s one reason human trafficking remains a generally invisible crime.

But I learned that the trafficking in Greece and the trafficking in America are totally different things. The girls in Europe knew they were victims of a crime. They were kidnapped or deceived by being told they’d have a restaurant job before leaving home only to be sold into the industry. It was soon clear to them something was very wrong, because instead of the job they were promised, they were locked in a room and sold for sex every day. They knew they had to get out. Girls in America more often experience “Romeo” traffickers: for example, a girl runs away from home after a fallout with her family. She’s approached by a trafficker in a public place who befriends her, feeds and shelters her. Eventually she thinks she loves the Romeo trafficker because he’s providing for her. So when he decides to start pimping her out for money, she doesn’t see herself as a victim but rather as a girlfriend trying to help her boyfriend make money to live. Often if law enforcement asks her if she’s a victim, she’d say that she absolutely was not, that she loved her boyfriend and was happy with what she was doing.
TL: The traffickers fundamentally misvalue their victims. Why do you think they do that?
KA: It’s hard to say. Because of my experiences with victims and my graduate degree in professional counseling, I can imagine that for someone to treat another person as the traffickers treat the girls, it means they themselves have been mistreated. They may not have experienced genuine love; they likely have grown up in a home of brokenness and abuse and rejection. It might be the only way they know how to see the world and treat people around them. But, then again, trafficking just makes them a lot of money. Selling the girls is just a means to an end. They can sell one girl over and over again, whereas you can sell drugs only once. And some of them might actually deceive themselves into thinking they are actually taking care of the girls — giving them food, shelter, clothes — and that the girl should be grateful she has a place to get those things.

TL: Thessaloniki has been a major cultural and economic hub for over two millennia. Are major cities more likely to obscure human trafficking?
KA: Yes, larger cities, port cities, or cities otherwise close to the water are known to have large amounts of human trafficking. Even though it’s not a port city, Atlanta has been known to be a trafficking hub because of its size. But the crime continues to grow along Florida’s coast, too. Larger cities make it easier for traffickers to operate unnoticed, obviously because the populations are larger and it’s much easier to move victims around. In smaller towns you’re more likely to know if someone new shows up or someone quickly disappears, but in big places it’s common for people to be forgettable. Traffickers move girls frequently.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO
BE SIGNIFICANT IN THE
WORLDLY SENSE TO
MAKE A SIGNIFICANT
DIFFERENCE IN THE
WORLD. YOU JUST
HAVE TO BE WILLING
TO DO WHAT’S
UNCOMFORTABLE,
UNCONVENTIONAL,
AND UNFAMILIAR.

TL: How has your experience helping victims changed the plans you had for your life?
KA: That’s a great question. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology, and I always knew I wanted to counsel abused girls. During my experience in Greece with A21, the focus turned specifically to helping victims of sex trafficking by pursuing a graduate degree in professional counseling and becoming licensed. But I never believed I’d be able help the abused to the extent or in the way that I am. I’m not currently counseling victims, but with The Penny Story we are raising awareness of the crime and funds to fight it. We have orders for bracelets from all over the world. So I have a job now at Southeastern that I love and The Penny Story that is my other full-time job that’s taking off in a way that I never thought possible. My effort in the fight against trafficking does not look like what I imagined it would when I started out. But I love what it’s turned into.

TL: The Penny Story has received some remarkable attention.

KA: Yes it has. I started my master’s at Southeastern when I returned from my first trip to Greece, and the university asked how they could support my efforts. The result of that question was the 2015 documentary called Common Cents about human trafficking and The Penny Story. So the university was instrumental in bringing awareness to the crime of trafficking. Common Cents was aired at the Polk Theater in September 2015 with
about 1,200 in attendance, and it raised roughly $7,000 for The A21 Campaign. I am who I am because of Southeastern; they have been foundational and consistent in their support of The Penny Story.

Musical artist Kari Jobe had been praying for a way to support The A21 Campaign. I knew who she was from her music, but I had zero social connection to her at all. At the same time, I was in Greece praying for a way for The Penny Story to have a voice bigger than mine. I believed the world could fall in love with the penny if it had a big voice. One day, a woman bought a penny bracelet. Incredibly, and unbeknownst to me, the woman was Kari Jobe’s mom. Shortly afterward, Kari overheard a conversation between her mom and a friend about the penny bracelet and knew that it was an answer to her prayer. Kari asked her mom to contact me and ultimately asked if she could sell The Penny Story’s penny bracelets. I was floored. I was over the moon. I didn’t seek out this partnership, but when this connection was made, I knew my prayer was answered as well because Kari’s voice is much larger than mine. So Kari Jobe’s ministry had exclusive rights to The Penny Story for the two years that I was in grad school. After I graduated in April 2016, I took back The Penny Story from her ministry. Although Kari is still so supportive, she no longer sells the bracelets. In the months leading up to April, I had prayed about letting Kari have rights to The Penny Story for another year because she was selling lots of bracelets
and bringing a lot of awareness to the cause. I didn’t think there was a reason not to continue along the same course. But I sensed that God put the dream of The Penny Story on my heart and not on anyone else’s — including Kari’s, who has a wonderful heart and who I love very much.

It didn’t seem to make sense, because my platform as compared to Kari’s is so small. She has a much wider following and much broader influence. But I love The Penny Story so much that I began to think about what it could be if it returned to me and I ran with it. So I found the courage to do it. Kari was so affirming of what we both think God was doing and very excited that I took it back on.

TL: What’s next for The Penny Story?
KA: The Penny Story is growing so much more than I dreamed it ever would. There are two sides of the coin, so to speak. One side is bringing awareness and financial support about human trafficking through the bracelets themselves, and the other is the speaking opportunities that I’ve had in the last seven months. It’s important, because when I tell my story of growing The Penny Story, it shows that you don’t have to be anyone significant to make a significant difference in this world. When I’ve been invited to speak to churches and universities, I’m able to impart how my obedient “yes” to God has become part of a movement that is rescuing trafficking victims all over the world by supporting The A21 Campaign. We’re fighting trafficking in a very real way, every single day. So my hope is that The Penny Story continues to make its way around the world to those who haven’t heard about it, that I’d continue to have speaking opportunities to high school and college-age students and even people older than that to
emphasize, again, that you don’t have to be significant in the worldly sense to make a significant difference in the world. You just have to be willing to do what’s uncomfortable, unconventional, and unfamiliar. We have new merchandise coming, too. We’re now making penny keyrings, because there are some people who don’t care to wear bracelets. Someone recently donated 12,000 old pennies to us, so we’re even making penny necklaces from them. I am so incredibly thankful to anyone who reads this and buys The Penny Story products, because it’s not me that’s changing anything — it’s the people who hear the story, connect with it, and buy a bracelet. They are helping give a voice and value to the penny and, in turn, those victims
of human trafficking that were once invisible and unvalued.

For more information about The Penny
Story and its products, please visit
THEPENNYSTORY.COM.