She remembers the carrots. The strange orange sticks that sat inside a cold, boxy machine she had never encountered in her native land. The first time she saw them, at 3 years old, she pulled the vegetables out to take a closer look.
She remembers the dolls, too. And she remembers hating them. For Christmas, her new family bought her a nice big one – an ordinary gift for almost any young girl. The details of the doll have since left her memory, but not the feeling she got when looking at the plastic figure with beady eyes. What is this?
She remembers the birthday parties. The grandparent visits. The water fights in the yard with her brothers. These are Lillian Martino Bradley’s earliest memories, all based in the place she calls home – the comfortable small town of Heber City, Utah. These are the elements of her past she knows for sure.
Much of the rest is a puzzle she continues to assemble.
Lillian is running late.
She barrels around the campus flag circle – a welcome mat of sorts to the stunning Brigham Young University, Hawaii – and brings her black Hyundai Tucson to a halt. She snatches her backpack and a pair of shoes from the passenger seat and rushes barefoot to the entrance of the David O. McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding, home for most of her classes on the Laie, Hawaii, campus.
Lillian hurries into the classroom, greets her anthropology professor with a wide smile and takes a seat. It’s the week before finals, and today’s class is voluntary for those who want to discuss their papers – ethnographies on a culture of their choosing. Lillian is writing about ranching culture after spending hours researching, observing and interviewing at the 600-acre Gunstock Ranch a couple of miles down the road. Her husband, Gerritt, a psychology major at Brigham Young-Hawaii, brings in money as a ranch hand there between classes.
“These stories, these narratives – don’t just let them hang there,” the professor, Phillip McArthur, tells Lillian. “You’ve got to tell us why they matter. Make sense of the story. Interpret it. Link it back to the overall purpose.”
Lillian nods as she types on her MacBook Pro. “So, kind of bouncing back and forth between what I observed and how I felt, but not overshadowing what they’re telling me about their culture?” she asks, her brown eyes peering over her computer screen.
Tell why stories matter. Interpret their meaning. Connect them to a purpose. These are skills Lillian began developing long before this final paper, long before she even arrived at this university halfway across the Pacific Ocean. She landed at Brigham Young-Hawaii while chasing her dream of playing college soccer. But along with fulfilling her athletic aspirations, her schooling has served her larger mission in ways she never saw coming.
Lillian has dedicated much of her life toward the fight against human trafficking. Putting a dent in the third-largest criminal industry in the world is no small mission, even for the most seasoned of humanitarians. Yet this 20-year-old, born into poverty and later adopted from a part of West Africa beset with the crime she now fights, is fueled by fragments of her past.
This is why, in between her schoolwork and her sport, Lillian makes time to speak out about human trafficking. It’s why she shares stories, asks questions and connects the dots when she senses something isn’t right. She has done it in the villages of Ghana and on the streets of the United States, where experts say victims of human trafficking are hidden in plain sight. One day four years ago, she took action outside a nail salon in Arizona.
That afternoon, Lillian and her mother, Lois, had a couple of hours to kill between a soccer tournament and their flight back to Utah. While Lois was enjoying her manicure, Lillian began asking the nail artists simple questions: Where were they from? How long had they been in Arizona? How old were they? Lillian noticed an authoritative man – the owner, she assumed – staring at the women and listening to their responses. The women, who spoke little English, dodged the questions and appeared uncomfortable.
Outside, Lillian turned to her mom. “You need to call the police.”
“Why?” Lois asked, alarmed.
Her daughter explained she thought the women were trafficked. The signs – their age, their discomfort with her questions, their apparent concern that the boss was listening – all seemed to be there.
The pair filed a report and never found out whether Lillian’s instincts were on target. But Lillian rests easier knowing she tried – is still trying – to make even the slightest difference in this pervasive industry. She can’t turn her head the other way while nearly 21 million people around the world suffer from some form of human trafficking. She can’t sit and do nothing, not after all she has seen. And not with the gut feeling she holds inside.
She feels pulled to help because she could have been one of them.
Tracy Martino guided Lillian, his adopted daughter, to the plane that would take her away from Ghana for the first time.
Lillian can’t say for certain where her life began. The story passed along to her started in a field.
She was told her birth mother and father came from separate tribes in Ghana. But because intertribal marriage contradicted local customs, her father supposedly fled. Her mother lurched into labor in a field, Lillian was told, and she later died from childbirth complications. Details of her birth father remain muddled.
A man who identified himself as Lillian’s uncle took the child in. They lived on the outskirts of Accra in a one-room, tin-roofed shack shared by three generations. Garbage covered the ground outside. Pools of standing water served as breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The uncle was a shoe repairman who struggled to provide for his family. Sometimes, a tiny Lillian would walk miles with him until he found work.
When a Mormon couple from Utah came to teach locals about their faith, Lillian grabbed their attention. The girl’s skin hugged her bones and her belly bulged, a sure sign of malnourishment. But any feelings of hunger or discomfort didn’t dull her spunk. Other children in the village gathered around the white visitors, intrigued by the people who looked so different. Two-year-old Lillian grabbed a stick and chased the kids away.
The couple completed their two-year mission trip and, upon their return to Heber City, told their neighbors, Lois and Tracy Martino, about the young girl they had met. The girl’s uncle admitted he couldn’t take care of her, and her elderly grandmothers weren’t better off. The couple worried about the girl’s fate. They urged the Martinos to consider adoption.
But Lois and Tracy already had three kids of their own. All boys, their youngest had just begun kindergarten. Lois was a stay-at-home mom who had embraced her new schedule with the kids away at school. She wasn’t sure the family could handle taking on the child.
One day, Lois asked Tracy about the money they had set aside. If they didn’t use it on the adoption, what would he do with it? “I would want more horses,” Tracy told Lois.
The next day, a neighbor came to their house offering a timely gift. “We started getting into these Tennessee walkers, and our quarter horses don’t keep up with them,” the neighbor told them. “So I have these quarter horses – would you like them?”
Lois laughs thinking about it now. “It was like, OK, hit me with lightning. This girl is supposed to be here.”
Lillian had just beaten malaria when Lois and Tracy landed in Ghana. The couple spent two weeks in the village getting to know their future daughter’s relatives and finalizing the adoption. Each morning, Lillian ate breakfast with the Americans. She would pinch one kernel of rice between her tiny fingers and place it in her mouth, savoring every piece.
In Utah, the girl underwent surgery to fix an umbilical hernia and started to gain weight. Lois learned essential phrases in Twi, her daughter’s native language: “Are you hungry?” she would ask. “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” Lillian developed a fascination with the refrigerator, where she first saw carrots. In front of the appliance, she learned a question of her own: “More?”
Her brothers welcomed her easily. But Lois and Tracy knew that being the only black child in her family, in her classes, in perhaps the whole community would present unique challenges for Lillian. Kids at school clamored to sit next to her on the classroom rug in the same way the village kids in Ghana had surrounded the Mormon missionaries. Her classmates touched her braids so often that Lois taught her daughter a trick. “You’re in my private space,” young Lillian started telling her peers.
“I knew she had to have a real strong sense of self,” Lois says. “That’s what I wanted to cultivate in her. To let her know that, you know what? You can do anything.”
Soccer entered Lillian’s life in fourth grade. And unlike other sports she tried, this one just clicked. Lillian joined a travel club team in Park City and found her niche at right wing, where she could beat others up the side and cross the ball with power.
Tracy, a former body builder with a thirst for competition, fostered that same competitive spirit in his daughter. “He was always teaching me to be focused and work hard and everything’s 110 percent,” Lillian recalls.
She would later excel in track and field, too, but soccer was her real love. She dreamed of playing in college – and her chances looked promising.
With the help of her mother, Lois, Lillian began a nonprofit to help orphans and other children who may be at risk for human trafficking.
Lillian was 13 the first time she returned to Ghana.
Up to that point, Lois and Tracy had tried to familiarize Lillian with her roots as best they could. They showed her videos from the adoption and photos of her first home. They shared the little they knew about her past and helped her stay in touch with her relatives by phone. But the time came for Lillian to experience it for herself.
Lois warned Lillian on the plane. The mother remembered how long it took her to acclimate to the smells, the humidity, the chaotic honking. She thought they might overwhelm her teenage daughter.
But when Lillian stepped off the plane and breathed in deeply, a powerful sensation overcame her: “It felt like I was home.”
The visceral reaction of comfort and familiarity surprised Lillian, who could draw up no memories of her birthplace. She looked with fresh eyes on the dirt roads and bare houses that dotted the village where she was born. She met her grandmothers for what felt like the first time and reconnected with the man she called her uncle.
That man ran a local orphanage and school that Lois had helped establish from Utah. Lois and Lillian visited the complex and bonded with smiling kids who appeared to be attending classes and eating three meals a day. The scene matched the image they had envisioned from thousands of miles away. It wasn’t until they were back home, peering at it again from a distance, that a different picture came into focus.
Kids who had escaped the orphanage’s confines, through adoption or otherwise, began telling the Martinos horrific stories. Rather than attend school, the kids said they had been awoken early at the orphanage and forced to do construction work, mixing cement, carrying concrete blocks and walking miles to get water. The allegations included physical abuse.
News reports from Ghana and leaders of other anti-human trafficking organizations state that Ghana’s Social Welfare Department closed the orphanage soon after. The Social Welfare Department did not respond to requests for comment.
For Lillian, the news was a devastating introduction to the harsh realities of modern slavery. Children make up 62 percent of all trafficking victims in Africa and the Middle East, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Particularly vulnerable are children who are orphans or who lack a stable family structure. Children like Lillian’s peers in the village – and like Lillian herself years ago.
The experience was also a hard lesson in trust. Suddenly, what little the teenager understood about her past was shattered. How could they have missed the corruption that at one point bubbled right under their noses?
Worried about the kids who had lost their home at the orphanage, the Martinos reached out to a New York-based nonprofit, Orphans’ Heroes, whose founder had just uncovered corruption at her own Ghanaian orphanage. Orphans’ Heroes partnered with another nonprofit in Ghana, the Enslavement Prevention Alliance-West Africa, to provide a safe house in Accra for many of the victims from the orphanages.
Back in Utah, overcome with the idea she had escaped a similar fate, Lillian felt compelled to help. She organized her first benefit dance when she was 16 to raise money for the safe house. She held another one the following year, and between the two events raised more than $5,600.
But Lillian didn’t want to stop with sending money. She knew she had more to offer.
She first spoke publicly about human trafficking at a community issues conference in Heber City. Intrigued by her story, others asked if she would speak at their events, too. Soon, Lillian was addressing groups regularly at high schools and community events.
The more she spoke, the more the high schooler realized how little people knew about the criminal industry. That lack of awareness fueled her fire. With the help of her mother and a couple of family friends, Lillian turned her passion project into a nonprofit in 2014. The nonprofit, named Fahodie for Friends after the Ghanaian word meaning “freedom,” aims to raise both funds and awareness around the world for trafficking and modern-day slavery.
After all Lillian had learned about these atrocities, the teenager couldn’t help but wonder: Why aren’t people talking about this?
In both the state of Utah and the Martino household, rivalry lines run thick. Lois had attended Brigham Young University. Tracy was a diehard Ute. One day as they were driving through Provo on their way to another club soccer tournament, a playful compromise unfolded. “Lillian, if you want to go to BYU to play soccer, I guess I’ll go,” Tracy said. “But I’ll wear a red hat that says BYU.”
The 16-year-old Lillian laughed at the thought of her dad, too stubborn to wear the Cougars’ blue, making his own hat in a color befitting his alma mater. It would be one of the last laughs she shared with him. Tracy didn’t wake up the next morning.
Heavy with grief, Lillian tried burying her anguish in her busy schedule and, above all, soccer. The field was her refuge, the competition a welcome distraction. But in just her second game back after losing her father, an ominous pop sent excruciating pain throughout her right knee. The ACL tear – Lillian’s second – robbed the high school junior of her refuge, forcing her to confront her grief without the release of soccer.
As her daughter recovered, Lois tried her best to replicate the intense, motivating style of Tracy on the sidelines. For years in the evenings, Tracy would walk to the recreation center with Lillian and throw her the soccer ball. So when Lois noticed Lillian hadn’t practiced in days, she channeled her husband. “When was the last time you touched the ball?” Lois asked, hinting at a visit to the rec center.
Lillian knew she needed to practice, but she was in no hurry. Hours ticked by; afternoon gave way to evening. Finally, the teenager approached her mom at about 9 p.m. “All right,” Lillian said. “Let’s go.”
At the center, Lillian was easing into her warmup when a boy she knew approached and invited her to join a training session on a nearby field. Lillian was not aware of the training – she had not signed up for it, she told her friend, and she didn’t want to intrude. “No, come on,” Lillian remembers the boy saying. “It’s no big deal.”
Mark Davis, the Brigham Young-Hawaii coach at the time, wasn’t expecting to see much at the training that night. But then, he recalls, “Lillian shows up, and her technical ability, her speed, her talent just blew me away.”
Afterward, Davis asked Lillian some questions, capped with this one: “Would you like to play for BYU-Hawaii?” He had never recruited a girl on the spot before, he explains. But he just had a good feeling.
The good feeling was mutual. The man who invited her to join his team was wearing a red hat. Across the top read the letters “BYU-H.”
In her spare time, Lillian lets loose by surfing with her husband at the local beaches on Oahu’s popular north shore.
Just beyond the Brigham Young-Hawaii flag circle, a striking mosaic spanning the face of the David O. McKay Center illustrates a pivotal moment in the school’s story.
It was Feb. 7, 1921, and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were visiting the small town of Laie, on Oahu’s north shore. The men attended a flag-raising ceremony that day with children of the local LDS school, a small group brimming with diversity. Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Filipino children surrounded the American flag, paying tribute in unity. Moved by the ceremony, David McKay had a vision that brought him back to the Hawaiian town 34 years later.
Then the ninth president of the LDS church, McKay stood in the middle of a sugar cane field in Laie on Feb. 12, 1955, and broke ground on The Church College of Hawaii – later named Brigham Young University, Hawaii. “From this school, I’ll tell you,” McKay said, “will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally.”
Lillian was oblivious to the school’s peaceful mission when she arrived on campus her freshman year. Soccer was what brought her there, after all. She thought she’d study psychology.
But another piece was about to fall into place. A friend told her about Brigham Young-Hawaii’s intercultural studies program, founded in 2005 to fulfill McKay’s vision. Lillian learned she could major in peace-building.
Major in peace-building? The news seemed too perfect. No other program could align with Lillian’s goals so precisely, and this one practically had landed in her lap.
Lillian studied cross-cultural leadership, harmony and conflict resolution in her classes. Then, she put those lessons to practice in real life. She gave speeches in Ghana and Liberia to raise awareness of human trafficking. She pushed the conversation on social media, attended international conferences and made connections with experts in the field.
Lillian knew her young organization could make a bigger impact by partnering with others. But such working relationships – especially ones managed over thousands of miles – come with challenges. Lines of communication easily break down. Tracking the money becomes difficult. Even among people fighting for the same cause, differences in philosophy arise that can prevent progress.
“The hardest thing working from here and having stuff going on in West Africa,” Lillian says, “is finding people you can trust.”
Practice and experience has helped. In 2015, Fahodie for Friends partnered with a local Liberian man who runs a humanitarian group called C-Aid Liberia. Since then, the two groups have provided food, education and medication to orphaned 6-year-old twins who were saved from forced labor on a pepper plantation; purchased a wheelchair for a parentless 16-year-old who had lost movement in her legs; and built a hand pump that provides safe drinking water for a Liberian village.
This spring, Engage Now Africa, another nonprofit working to end modern-day slavery, asked Lillian to be a spokesperson for the organization. Lillian agreed, then turned her involvement into a summer internship in which she will work with the nonprofit to develop a curriculum for Utah schools that could be used to educate students about human trafficking.
Back home, Lillian has found a trusting partner of her own. Gerritt Bradley was in Ghana for an LDS mission trip when he came across a story online about Lillian. Also from Heber City, Gerritt messaged Lillian on Facebook, and what started as a date over pizza led to a marriage in 2015.
Lillian marvels at how the pieces are coming together. An African-born woman who barely knows the language of her birthplace, she married a small-town, American-born man fluent in it. He shares her passion for helping people and her love for Ghana. They plan to walk together at graduation in February – Lillian is on a three-year track – and expect to pursue graduate degrees. Down the road, they imagine, Gerritt could bring a new level of assistance to Fahodie for Friends, focusing on the psychological impact of trafficking on its victims.
“More and more,” Lillian says, “I see the bigger picture.”
Some of the pictures are clipped from magazines, their edges jagged and overlapping, devoid of order. Others are neatly trimmed rectangles, laid out in measured form. The montages take on the personality of their creators – students in the Brigham Young-Hawaii family and peace-building class, who were directed to make vision boards for their final class project.
Lillian’s pictures take the shape of a tree.
In today’s class, they’re talking about goals and dreams, of which Lillian has plenty. She can talk with ease about the branches on her vision board that lead to categories such as “lifestyle,” “career” and “family.” She wants to drink more water, eat healthy and stay fit, she tells the class. She is hungry to make her final season of soccer her best. She aspires to “be secretly incredible” and read more of the Book of Mormon. She shares her desire to meet Beyonce and grow her hair long.
Lillian likes to think about her life as a tree, blossoming in different and surprising directions. She has worked hard to build this tree from roots she can’t see, roots that lead to confusion, even today. She may never know the truth about her biological parents, or why, out of all the village kids, she was the one taken to America. She may never understand what her fate would have been had she stayed.
But that stuff? She won’t let it define her. She prefers to look up, each day creating her own story and watching as the branches grow.
In one corner of her vision board, Lillian pasted a photo of a familiar gold medallion. “I think it’d be pretty cool to win the Nobel Peace Prize,” she says to the class with an air of playfulness. Her classmates erupt at the words. Leave it to Lillian to share such a goal.
Lillian laughs, then shrugs. “Dream big, right?”