Human rights for ‘the least of these’

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When Karen Buschman Barnes (’05) was younger, her parents agreed that they would sponsor a child through Compassion International if she would carry on the correspondence. That was the start of her pen-pal friendship with Wennie, a Haitian girl, and one of many life-changing experiences to fuel her passion for international human rights.

“I always had an interest in figuring out how to help ‘the least of these,’ ” says Barnes, a communication and Spanish double-major who recently relocated from Nashville, Tenn., to become marketing manager at the International Justice Mission located outside Washington, D.C. For years she had been a fan of IJM, always thinking she’d like to work for the agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. In her position she works with the education and government relations teams to identify goals and develop marketing strategies to help achieve them.

Having participated in church mission trips and projects, Barnes came to Wake Forest with an interest in community service. A transformative turning point occurred in 2003 when she studied abroad in Salamanca, which also happened to be as the United States declared war in Iraq. “In the United States we can become so narrowly focused, we just see our lives,” she says. “There’s just such a bigger world out there.” This new perspective opened her eyes to an international scope and “kicked things off for me on the passion side.”

“I’m so proud of Wake in the way study abroad programs are prevalent and encouraged,” she says. “I’d love to see everyone participate in some kind of study abroad experience because of the way it expands horizons.”

On subsequent service trips while at Wake she traveled to Moscow, Russia, and to Guatemala. “We talk about the ‘Wake Forest bubble,” she says. “In Guatemala I met people who live 10 to a shack with dirt floors, but they are the most contented people in the world. It really opened my eyes.”

The IJM is composed of more than 400 legal, healthcare and government professionals working in their own communities to fight injustice. Its 14 field offices serve areas of the world where public justice systems are either broken or non-existent. Though the organization has been around for just 15 years, it has received major grants from Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to conduct humanitarian work, says Barnes. The Gates gift funded Project Lantern in Cebu, Philippines, an effort credited with reducing child sex trafficking in the area by 79 percent in four years.

One aspect of her job is to help IJM’s education team create student mobilization teams at colleges and universities. She knows first-hand that the spirit of Pro Humanitate runs deep at Wake Forest and would like to see a chapter formed here.

As for memories of Wake Forest, she recalls two professors whose care and concern made an impact: Jenny Puckett (’71) and Luis Gonzales in Romance languages; Gonzales kept in touch with her while she was in Guatemala.

“It was the excellence with which they taught,” she says. “I felt like they really cared about you as a person.”

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