Unsupported and at risk


Mariah Stewart

The middle aisle of the Walgreens on Butternut Street where a predator approached this reporter.

Mariah Stewart


    For all my life, I have been labeled as confident, brave, and willing to stand up for injustices. On May 22, 2021, I felt like I had never been any of those things before. I felt small, cowardly, and silent. Suddenly, the traits I value most about myself were gone. He made me feel like I had no power; I froze. 

The Day Everything Changed 

   On that day, I was sexually harassed. My sense of safety forever changed and my view of the world shifted quickly. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many young women.  

  It was the day of prom. I was going to help serve concessions to upperclassmen. I decided I needed to run into Walgreens to grab some false lashes. I looked around and realized that they did not have the ones I wanted. After walking out of the store, I remembered I needed to grab lotion. I went back in; I wish I never did. As I walked down an aisle in the middle of the store, a man approached and asked if I was an associate because I was wearing red. At first,I had sympathy for his possible mistake, but Walgreens employees wear blue. His comment was no honest mistake. 

   He asked if I was in college because of my sweatshirt that had my hometown’s college on it. I replied and said that I was a sophomore in high school. His body language alarmed me. He stepped closer and closer as we were talking. My heart raced, and I was scared of what was coming next. He asked me to show him where the restroom was. I refused to go with him and pointed. 

  I thought our conversation was going to end there, but he proceeded to say inappropriate things about my appearance; more specifically, my body. He came closer and said, “Wow, well, you have nice legs for a high schooler.” I knew that his conversation was headed for the worst. As his eyes envasively ran down my body, I became paralyzed. The space between him and me became non-existent. I blacked out and next thing I knew I was running outside to my car. I started screaming and crying, louder than I ever have before.

  I remember screaming to myself as I drove home, “I can’t even go to the f***ing store” over and over again. I felt like the safe spaces in my community were disappearing. It seemed as though the older I got the more I was faced with catcalling, sexual harassment, or put in uncomfortable situations. 

The Solution

  I arrived home in complete terror. When I told my parents what happened, they asked if he followed me home. I thought to myself, “Great. Another thing that could be my fault. I should’ve checked to see if he was following me. I shouldn’t have been driving with tears in my eyes.” I blamed myself for my outfit choice. I was wearing Nike athletic shorts and a sweatshirt. I said I did not know and my mom jumped into her car and demanded that she could see the cameras and the manager refused. They said they needed law enforcement in order to share their camera footage.

  My mom and I called the police to file a report. I never imagined that I would sit in my room telling the police about this encounter. At that time, I had no idea the seriousness and reality of this situation. 

   While standing outside my front door, the sheriff said I was almost a victim of sex trafficking. He said that many of the things I shared about the encounter were clear signs. Unfortunately, without footage, they could do nothing about it. He said that filing a police report still helps, even though I felt like it wouldn’t. He said  “If he tries his tactics again and someone else files a report with the same description, it will make it easier to catch him.” 

   Later, a police officer came to my house and shared that the Walgreens did not have cameras that covered the area I was in. I was outraged. I thought “How is this legal?” and “So nothing is going to happen?” The police officer informed me that they had notified the Walgreens many times about their lack of cameras, but they had done nothing to fix it. 

The Aftermath 

   For the next few days, I felt like I couldn’t go anywhere alone. I feared that I was being stalked or he was waiting to approach me somewhere else. It was hard for me to walk into stores or run errands by myself. As someone who values her independence, this was incredibly hard to overcome. I wanted so badly to walk into a store to grab something that I needed, but I couldn’t. My mind would fill with thoughts about the “what ifs.” I couldn’t remember what it was like to feel safe enough to be by myself.

  My dad bought me pepper spray the next day. It made me feel safer for a short period. The reality of being able to protect myself set in. I knew that if I was attacked, the chance of me being able to defend myself with pepper spray would be slim. I realized that I would have to take more precautions as a young woman to make sure I am not put in unsafe situations.

 After this experience, I knew I had to change my day-to-day life. I always take the parking spot closest to the entrance. I share my location with others in case I go missing. I am more aware of my surroundings when I am alone. I miss feeling safe in my community. I miss not having to be overly cautious to try and ensure my safety. 

  It took me over a year to wear the clothes I wore that day. It took me a year to walk into that Walgreens again. I would stare at myself in the mirror and blame myself for wearing shorts that day. I felt like it was my fault because of the shorts I wore. That guilt still follows me to this day and unfortunately often has an influence on what I wear. I’m proud of myself for overcoming this burden society has placed upon women, but I know it shouldn’t exist at all.

The Support in West Michigan is Inadequate 

  I began writing this article hoping to make an informative piece about the dangers of sex trafficking and experiences of those in the West Michigan Area. As I began my research, I realized the lack of information, education, and assistance for those that may have had any encounter with sex trafficking. 

  This made me realize after my scary encounter, I was not given any resources or reassurance that was safe in this community. I was not warned of the possible cases of sex trafficking in the community. I began to wonder if this problem was big in West Michigan. The police officer that came to my house recommended that I just don’t go to that Walgreens anymore. Although I appreciate the tip, I wished that there was more information offered to me. 

  I have diligently searched for sex-trafficing support services in the Ottawa County area, and all I have been able to find is the sex trafficking hotline. The hotline had me on hold for 40 minutes: unbelievable. I soon realized how hard it is to be to find someone local to interview about sex trafficking. 

   I have reached out to two people employed at the Ottawa County Sheriff’s office and have not been able to get in touch with them. 

  The Ottawa County Human Trafficking Task Force is not much help either. I visited their website hoping to find someone to contact and was let down. Their “Contact Us” tab includes 911 and the National Sex Trafficking Hotline. The hotline that had me on hold for 40 minutes. 

   Upon further research, I found the Human Sex Trafficking Work Group listed on the Grand Rapids website. I reached out to the email and phone number connected to the webpage and learned that the email was out of service and had no luck with the phone number. 

   West Ottawa High School school counselor Lacy Otteman shared the Warning Lights Organization with me. It is located in Byron Center, Michigan. The website is informative and shares preventive information about sex trafficking and ways to get involved to help those affected. The organization sees the injustice that sex trafficking victims face. I reached out for an interview and have one schedule for February. I am planning on doing a follow up article to share more about the organization. The organization lead will be unavailable until then because of a project. 

I searched for information in the Kent County Area and was overwhelmed with resources on this PDF. Although it is extremely outdated, they put together the information in 2015. Who knows if any of these resources and services are still available and active

   If I have found information to help someone in the area with sex trafficking, it is outdated and not helpful. Every day, people in West Michigan are being failed by their community. We need more urgency and compassion for those involved in sex trafficking. West Michigan is lacking information and resources for those who have been involved with sex trafficking.