Karen O’Hara receives Contemporary Woman of Distinction award for humanitarian efforts
Tuesday May 14, 2013 | By:Lizz Schumer | News
SPRINGVILLE — Karen O’Hara, a Springville resident and owner of Rte 219 Southtowns Antiques on Cascade Drive in Springville, won the Contemporary Woman of Distinction award for the 59th New York State Senate District by Senator Patrick Gallivan. That district is made up of parts of Erie, Wyoming, Livingston and Monroe counties.
The nominations consisted of anonymous, 250-word essays that were sent to the senator, from which he chose O’Hara’s. The resident had no knowledge of her entry, until after she was chosen.
“Of all the successful women in Western New York, I was very honored and humbled to have been recognized,” O’Hara said. “I was just overwhelmed. “I’ve spoken out in the community, and worked for two years, to spread awareness. To be recognized, that we’re on the right path, that people are noticing; you don’t get that, every day.”
O’Hara was nominated for the award as a result of her “energy and commitment to improving her community and the world around her,” according to a statement by Gallivan. She was selected as Mrs. New York in 2011 and served as the state delegate to the Mrs. America Pageant. She also holds the title of Mrs. New York International 2013.
With the publicity from those programs, O’Hara founded United Hands for Hope House, for which she “is a soldier on the front lines of the global effort, to combat human trafficking,” according to Gallivan.
That organization began with a fund drive at the McKinley Mall in Hamburg, in 2011, during which O’Hara said they sold paper houses, similar to the diabetes walk shoes sold at supermarkets, and raised the $800 they needed for an incorporation license, that same day. Since then, the organization has held a Caribbean night fundraiser and an Out of the Shadows art show, during which five, local artists’ designs were chosen for a billboard campaign. Starting in the first week of May, billboards will be erected across the 17 Western New York counties, to help raise awareness about the organization and domestic human trafficking.
In January, O’Hara was also appointed as an Ambassador of Hope to New York state by Shared Hope International, the country’s largest, anti-human trafficking organization.
With that appointment, O’Hara said she plans to promote a documentary training video, “Chosen” that will help teachers educate middle school, high school and college students on the dangers of domestic human trafficking. She also plans to help provide teachers and counselors with training, on the issue, to keep the program going, even after O’Hara leaves.
“It’s the first of its kind,” O’Hara said, of “Chosen,” which was released on May 3. “Teachers are on the front lines, of protecting the children of America. We don’t think of human trafficking happening, here. It’s not an overseas problem. It’s a people problem, that happens in every city, every town, every day. We need to bring awareness; to tell children that it can happen to them.”
O’Hara explained that domestic human trafficking is different from international trafficking, in the way it is carried out. In international trafficking circumstances, children are often sold to traffickers for poverty reasons, or taken out of war-torn countries.
“These are displaced, desperate people,” O’Hara said. “If we were at war, in this country, that would happen here, too.”
Domestically, O’Hara said that traffickers send people, called spotters, to find vulnerable young people to target. They form relationships with them and become romantically involved. Before the young people know what has happened, the spotter will have gathered blackmail, threatened to post incriminating photos on social media, threatened and distanced them from their families, and entangled them into the cycle of human trafficking.
“These girls are specifically chosen because they have low self-esteem. They’re vulnerable. Before they know it, they’re being treated like a product,” O’Hara explained. “How many times do you hear parents talk about ‘a no-good boyfriend?’ They may not realize that a no-good boyfriend is really trafficking. A lot of people haven’t heard about it.”
O’Hara said that her mission, with “Chosen” and starting the United Hands of Hope House, is to expose the reality of human trafficking, right in her own community and Western New York.
“Teachers can learn what it is and spot potential targets. They know these kids, best,” she said. “They can work with the students to build self-esteem, get them [socially] engaged, tell them, ‘You don’t have to do this.’” She said that her program encourages young people who think they may be at risk to “go to that teacher, reach out to the Hope House, to their local sheriff’s department. These [spotters] are dangerous, because they give these poor girls what they think they’re missing, while taking what she is.”
O’Hara travels to Albany on May 7, to meet with Senator Gallivan, receive her award and participate in a ceremony to recognize the 2013 New York State Contemporary Woman of Distinction winners. She said she plans to use that opportunity to try to raise awareness, for her cause. Although she started her organization two years ago, the group is still seeking funding and support, to build the facility, which she said is sorely needed, in the United States.
“We need corporate backers and financial backers. Some people have come forward, with support, and we’re excited about all the irons we do have in the fire.
“Most people don’t get this opportunity, to meet these [government officials] and say, ‘What can I do to get your support?’” she continued. “I’m ready for the challenge, to use my voice, to make a difference.”
O’Hara said that she sees United Hands of Hope House as having similar potential to the Make A Wish Foundation, which gives wishes to terminally ill children. Both organizations started out as small, local operations, and O’Hara said she hopes her project can grow to a national size, in due time.
“Every step of the way, we’ve been learning. I put my faith in the pace God has set, for us. I just keep realizing that we have to follow the path and that the plan is gonna happen, not in my time, but in his time, with [God’s] support,” she said.
“The first thing is, to let people know who we are. [Make A Wish] just continued down their path, and we can do that, too. I want to give wishes to women and wishes to people who have been trafficked. Reaching the right ears, and I think this award will help me reach those ears, will help our community.”
O’Hara said that the award makes her realize that, when businesspeople and government officials work together, “we can help each other.
“I’m just a small business owner, trying to make a difference. This recognition shows me how important it is for businesses and government to work together, for the common good.”
O’Hara is also active in the Springville Area Chamber of Commerce, Springville Youth Incorporated and several local, athletic organizations. She is a past recipient of the Fred Langless award for humanitarian outreach and lives in Springville with her husband Mark and their two children.