Kimberly Hoffmann signed up for a DePaul University study abroad trip to China and Tibet to push herself out of her comfort zone.
Little did she know that the trip would inspire her to learn about other far-away cultures, leading to four more short-term study abroad trips, a meeting with a renowned human rights activist and a realization that she was meant to spend her life helping victims of human trafficking.
When she began taking classes through the School for New Learning, she was a stay-at-home mom who thought pursuing higher education could turn into a career as a writer. Today, as she graduates with her bachelor’s degree, the 42-year-old Geneva resident is embarking on a new life as executive director of Making Waves, a nonprofit devoted to fighting sex trafficking.
“I wouldn’t be where I am right now without the School for New Learning and DePaul University’s study abroad programs,” she said. “I returned from those experiences changed.”
In China and Tibet, she had her first taste of how fulfilling it was to learn about other cultures. She and her fellow students learned about Buddhism and China’s ethnic groups. Next, Hoffmann traveled to Clifden, Ireland, where DePaul students volunteered for a community arts festival. The students also learned eye-opening facts about how the Irish survived extreme conditions during the potato famine.
“That started to change my focus,” she said. “I really began to feel that I was meant to help others.”
In fall 2010, Hoffmann studied abroad in Thailand and Cambodia, where the group attended a human trafficking rally led by Somaly Mam, a human rights activist. DePaul later would present Mam an honorary degree at the School for New Learning’s 2011 commencement for her work to end the trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery.
During Hoffmann’s trip, Mam introduced the DePaul group to young girls who had been sold or forced into slavery at a very young age. “The girls hugged us — it was nonstop,” Hoffmann recalled. “They just needed so much love.”
That moment sealed Hoffmann’s fate. “I knew what I was going to do,” she said. “I was going to help stop human trafficking.”
But she still had more to learn. She took classes on globalization and human rights, and studied abroad in England to learn about the role of religious groups in nonprofit organizations. Her final study abroad trip took her to Colombia, where she studied displaced people. Soon after returning, she completed 30 hours of training on issues related to human trafficking through St. Thomas University School of Law.
“With that training, I realized how prevalent human trafficking really is,” she said. “No country can escape it.”
As her time with the School for New Learning came to a close, Hoffmann began looking for opportunities to work with human trafficking issues closer to home. She started volunteering with Making Waves, but quickly showed the potential to serve as its leader.
Now she’s meeting with leaders of similar organizations to learn how she can open a shelter in the Chicago area for teenage girls who are victims of the sex trade. Hoffmann is raising funds for the organization with the hope of completing a shelter in two years or less.
“You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to get my degree so I could be a role model for my children,” she said. “And now I’m here! It’s changed my life. I’m doing things I never, ever would have been able to do.”
Written by Lynn Safranek