Serinda Swan, Bonnie Abaunza Honored for Raising Awareness About Human Trafficking

Serinda Swan - P 2014
Associated Press

The women were joined by Selena Gomez, Ian Somerhalder, Nikki Reed and Jesse McCartney at the annual Beverly Hills fundraiser for the nonprofit Unlikely Heroes

Unlikely Heroes, an organization founded to fight sex trafficking, used its annual fundraising dinner in Bevelry Hills Saturday to honor a group of like-minded Hollywood activists and artists.

Longtime entertainment industry activist Bonnie Abaunza, founder of Amnesty International's Artists for Amnesty program, received the group's lifetime achievement award for her more than 30 years of work on behalf of civil and human rights.

Other honorees at the star-studded event at the Sofitel Los Angeles in Beverly Hills included Graceland actress Serinda Swan, Call + Response director Justin Dillon, Bridget's Dream founder Leah Albright-Byrd and Runaway Girl founder Carissa Phelps. Attendees and presenters included Selena Gomez; Nikki Reed and her boyfriend, Vampire Diaries star Ian Somerhalder; Best of Me actress Liana Liberato; environmental activist Kelly Meyer; Erika Williams, director for brand marketing and communications at PMK-BNC; actresses Azie Tesfai and Francia Raisa; and Jesse McCartney, who performed.

Swan told the crowd that her life was profoundly changed several years ago during a trip to Cambodia, where she met a 6-year-old girl who had been sold to traffickers. As the girl talked about her horrific experiences, Swan said she had to step away for a moment so the girl wouldn't see her cry.

"I didn't want my emotions to affect her," Swan told the crowd. "I felt a little tug on my pant leg. I looked down at her. She put her hands on my cheeks and she started wiping away my tears. She said, 'Sister don't cry.' She was a 6-year-old and I was crying for her and she was worried about me. In that moment I told her, 'Your voice will become my voice, my platform is your platform, my spotlight is your spotlight.'"

After Swan returned to the United States, she founded the group called Friends to Mankind to raise awareness about human trafficking by enlisting celebrities to jump out of airplanes and tweet about it. Some 75 million people have been reached as a result of the effort.

"Standing on this podium, using my voice, having these spotlights, I can tell her that I'm trying," Swan said. "I'm trying my best to let people know."

In accepting her lifetime achievement award, Abaunza called human trafficking "the scourge of humanity."

"Twenty-seven million people are trapped in a life of modern and slavery but organizations like Unlikely Heroes will not allow this societal horror to go unchallenged," said Abaunza, who is currently working with the United Nations agency, the International Labour Organization, spearheading campaigns against slavery, human trafficking and child labor. She quoted the Talmud: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief: do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

Unlikely Heroes was founded by Bay Area activist Erica Greve, who has dedicated her life to rescue children who were previously sold for sex in the U.S. and abroad. Proceeds from Saturday's gala will support the Unlikely Heroes home in the Philippines, which provides shelter, education, job training and therapeutic treatment services to the child survivors of sex slavery. The fundraiser will also help to support the Unlikely Heroes outreach project in Oakland, Calif., that provides help at street-level to children trapped in commercial sexual exploitation in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as additional international restoration projects.