EAST MANATEE -- When he meets the parents of children, especially 12- to 14-year-old girls, Garrett Makeever of the Palmetto Police Department offers a piece of advice based on his experience.
"Be the parent," Makeever said Sunday. "If you don't, someone out there is ready to act like the parent and be their buddy."
Makeever and his wife, Sarah, don't just talk the talk when it comes to issues involving sexual exploitation and human trafficking among children.
The couple donated roughly $60 during a fundraiser Sunday for Selah Freedom, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to "bring light into the darkness of modern day slavery."
The fundraiser, which the Makeevers attended as part of a crowd of 275, was held as part of Full Belly Stuffed Burgers' first birthday celebration Sunday at 8742 State Road 70 E. in Ranch Lake Plaza.
The event raised about $500 for Selah Freedom, which operates a home in Sarasota for runaway girls, said Allison Kummery, whose fiance is Matt Holt, one of three Full Belly Stuffed Burgers owners.
Sexual exploitation of children is disturbing, Kummery said.
"It's not something people like to talk about, but Florida is in the top three states for human trafficking," Kummery said. "It's No. 2 for sex trafficking."
According to Selah Freedom, up to 300,000 children are taken into sex trafficking each year.
"The traffickers are organized," Kummery said. "They are moving girls from Tampa to Miami to meet the demands for sex. The reason it is so prevalent here is that Florida is a big runaway state, having mild weather so kids can hang outside near bus stations."
Selah Freedom reports many young girls drawn into sex trafficking have been
abused in their homes from a young age and are waiting for a chance to run away.
"Between 12 and 14 for girls is the entry age into this situation," Kummery said.
"It's definitely getting bad," Makeever said of sexual exploitation of youths locally. "Palmetto officers have gone to school about the problem. We don't ignore it if we see a situation where it could exist. There are so many runaways now and these people prey on runaways."
Garrett Makeever grew up in Bradenton and graduated from Southeast High in 1986; his wife, Sarah, is from a small town called North Collins, N.Y. She grew up playing sports and met Garrett Makeever while playing co-ed softball for the Red Barn team.
"Every kid needs to be involved in something like sports where they have support and mentors," Sarah Makeever said. "I think Boys & Girls Club and the Police Athletic League are so important. If there is just one positive person in a child's life, they may not fall prey by all of this."
Sarasota's Ryan Carney, hired to perform his original reggae-inspired music for the event, said he will consider writing a song for Salah Freedom.
"I have three little sisters," Carney said. "I am an advocate for them."
There were prize giveaways, games for children and loads of stuffed burgers.
The high point was the unusual "Burger Cake" made by local photographer and baker Kimberly Keech. It was a cake that looked like a burger, complete with bun and cheese.
"It's so realistic we can't be sure it's made of flour until we cut into it," said Full Belly co-owner Shane Keinz.
Information: Elizabeth Melendez Fisher, president/CEO of Selah Freedom, 941-348-9141 or selahfreedom.com
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.'