If there’s one cause Penny Billings is willing to take a leap for, it’s bringing an end to human trafficking. Billings, who is competing in the Mrs. United States pageant in Palm Beach, Fla., this week, jumped from an airplane Thursday to bring awareness to the issue.
Billings, owner of OCD Housekeeping, and, at 56, the oldest contestant in the pageant, said, “I wanted to do something spectacular because it’s such a big issue.”
She became involved in the WellHouse, a residential therapeutic program for victims of human sex trafficking, when she was asked several years ago to lead a small group with some of the women residents.
Billings knew about the facility because of a presentation at her church years prior. “At the time, I didn’t have the availability to volunteer, although I wanted to,” she said.
A few years went by and circumstances changed and she thought again about volunteering her time. The thought had no sooner entered her head when she got an email from her church asking her to lead a small group at the WellHouse.
“I just started to cry because I thought, ‘Lord, I haven’t even started to pray about this yet.’ It wasn’t even a verbalized thing, it was more of a thought,” she said.
She began volunteering. “It was amazing,” said Billings. “Initially, when I was approached, it was terrifying because I had never met any women who were victims. But after stepping on to the property and meeting the ladies there, they just stole my heart. It broke my heart to think about what they’d gone through.”
Ending human sex trafficking became her cause. Billings notes that less than one percent of human trafficking cases are abductions.
“The traffickers look for those who are most vulnerable, including the homeless and runaways,” she said.
“It’s happening at younger and younger ages now,” she added. “That’s what’s so upsetting now. Middle schoolers are framing middle schoolers.” Tactics include asking for compromising pictures that the trafficker then threatens to expose; threats to family members; and pretending to be the victim’s boyfriend and taking control of the victim.
“The definition of human trafficking is fear, fraud and coercion. Those are the things that they use,” she said. “And the sad thing is often it’s a family member that’s trafficking a family member. It might be a parent or a step-parent.”
Her participation in the Mrs. Alabama Pageant followed a similar path as her involvement with the WellHouse. Years ago, she’d reached out to a pageant organization, but gave up the idea. “I didn’t have a platform; I would be doing it for selfish reasons,” said Billings. But then, years later, out of the blue, she received an email from them.
“It came from the pageant organization and said, ‘would you consider entering the pageant?’ I was like, ‘what?’” I hadn’t thought about this in years,” she said. “But then I started thinking that I had a reason to do it now.”
She began training and worked on her platform, “They are Worth It.” At the Mrs. Alabama pageant, she finished as a First Alternate. Because some states were not able to hold their pageants, the first alternatives were selected to represent those states in the Mrs. United States pageant. Billings will be representing Tennessee in the contest.
Before taking off from Folsom Field Thursday with skydive instructor Victor Guerrero, Billings penned a message on her palms. “End Human Sex Trafficking.” It’s the message she’s bringing to the pageant next week, and one she wants everyone to hear.
She also has a message for victims of human trafficking. “I want you to see the beauty that I see. When I see you, I see the beauty that God created in you. I want you to see yourself the way I see you, the way God sees you. You’re not a piece of property, a piece of trash to be thrown around, to be bought and sold like that.”