Wayne Ponschke is a man on the road with a mission. The 18-wheeler UPS truck driver spreads the word to combat human trafficking in the Valley and beyond, a crime experts call a form of modern-day slavery exploiting girls, boys, women and men for sex — some as young as 9 years of age.
Ponschke, 58, is a member of Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), a national nonprofit that gets drivers involved in the disruption of human trade in the United States. He joined the organization in 2019 and now is among a selected few leaders of TAT’s Freedom Drivers Project, a mobile 18-wheeler exhibit that educates truck drivers and the general public about the crude realities of sex trafficking. According to UPS, he is one of 20 company drivers certified to move the trailer and give guided tours of the exhibit, which has already traveled more than 11,000 miles and hosted 3.9 million visitors.
The trailer features a theater station, artifacts from trafficking cases and stories of people enslaved by traffickers. It also spotlights portraits of TAT members and how they work to end human trafficking. Moreover, the exhibit teaches simple steps for anyone to immediately walk out of it.
Recently, the Freedom Drivers Project trailer came to Sylmar, where UPS has a major hub that serves the Valley and nearby communities. Ponschke works out of that facility, which was one of 11 stops as he hauled the trailer from Denver, Colorado to its final destination of Ontario, California. There, the mobile exhibit will be on display on Feb. 25 as part of a “truck rodeo,” a competition of the best UPS drivers doing an obstacle course that is expected to attract nearly 1,000 people from across the country, according to Ponschke.
“Most people don’t know sex trafficking is happening in their communities,” says Ponschke. “Some people have no idea.” In fact, he was among them not long ago.
Ponschke, a Palmdale resident who grew up in Pacoima, Sun Valley and Sunland, had been a UPS driver for little more than two decades before he learned about it. He initially worked the company’s ubiquitous brown delivery trucks in Southern California and later drove a big rig from Los Angeles to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Colorado and other places. But the former Valley resident admits that in all those years he wasn’t aware of human trafficking. That changed three years ago when Paul Barnes, a fellow UPS truck driver from Chicago, asked him to watch a powerful video. His friend was a member of Truckers Against Trafficking and wanted to get Ponschke involved, too.
The video featured a young woman named Shari from Toledo, Ohio, who was kidnapped at age 14, along with a cousin and forced into prostitution. “I could not believe what I saw,” he recalls. “I called Paul and told him, ‘This cannot be happening in our country.’” He adds, “If you watch this video, it will change your life.” It changed his. He promptly got certification as a TAT member and has committed himself to helping fight against sex trafficking.
On regular work days, Ponschke carries TAT pocket handouts to leave at rest areas and other stops along his trips. Some read, “Love doesn’t hurt. Pimps and buyers do,” aimed at young people to help them avoid falling prey to traffickers.
One flier reads like a wanted ad, “Everyday heroes needed.” It also highlights the crucial role of drivers saying, “Truckers are the eyes and ears of our nation’s highways. Victims forced into sexual slavery need your help. If you see a minor working the lot or suspect pimp control, call 1-888-3737-888 and report what you know.”
Other materials encourage truck drivers and members of the public to take action. One says, “Make the call. Save lives,” listing signs of trafficking. These include prostitution taking place, women or children looking fearful, disheveled or crying, multiple cars and different men continually going in and out of a residence, someone — typically older male — being controlling, threatening or even violent with an individual — typically younger female — and extraordinary security measures for a business or home.
Ponschke advises people to be careful in reporting suspicious activity. “If you see something you think is trafficking, get information and make the phone call,” he says, noting that vehicles’ descriptions and plate licenses are helpful as well as those of victims and pimps. He also warns, “You never wanna walk up to those individuals trafficking these people and confront them or they will get away. Instead, get the police there as quickly as possible.”
The Slymar-based truck driver places his fliers in strategic places at rest areas. “I leave those handouts in restrooms, at drinking fountains, next to phone booths,” says Ponschke. “No matter what, they [victims] have to use the restroom, drink water or [walk by] the public phones. I want our hotline number in all those places.” He hopes that some victims could use that information and take action in a free moment away from their captors.
This year, Ponschke also started proudly displaying a decal with the TAT logo and phone number on his truck. The black-and-white sticker stands out on the driver’s side, bottom left corner of the window. “It’s the first time in the history of UPS that we drivers have been able to put any kind of decals on our trucks,” he says with excitement in his voice. It helps that the UPS Foundation is a major supporter of Truckers Against Trafficking, having reportedly donated nearly $1 million.
The Sylmar-based truck driver is not the only UPS employee helping to stop human trafficking. According to the shipping and receiving company, more than 100,000 workers have been trained to recognize and report the crime. Ponschke himself has gone the extra mile in connecting fellow drivers with TAT.
As soon as he became a member of the nonprofit back in 2019, Ponschke reached out to his UPS colleagues Barnes from Chicago and Ryan Ibarra from Ontario with the idea to get more company truckers to join TAT. “After certification, I wanted to do something big,” he states. And he did. With Barnes and Ibarra, Ponschke recruited hundreds of UPS drivers. “We certified 465 people in 30 days,” he says. “Collectively, we have eyes on the problem in this country.”