Shay Mitchell helps empower LGBT youth with her character Emily on “Pretty Little Liars,” and she’s also dedicated to stopping human trafficking with the Somaly Mam Foundation. Somaly Mam, the founder of SMF, was sold into slavery as a young girl in Cambodia, and Shay helps her mission to stop slavery in Cambodia and elsewhere.
Shay, who’s visited Cambodia, often Tweets about SMF and has taken part in different initiatives, including the 18 for 18 Project, where people would skydive 18,000 feet as part of an anti-human trafficking fundraiser. Slavery is a serious issue, with an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide, and SMF is also currently part of the Mozilla Firefox Challenge to help curb that. We wanted to learn about this org and what’s going on, so Shay told MTV Act about how she first got involved with SMF, how YOU can get involved, and how her character Emily is helping teens feel more comfortable about themselves.
ACT: How did you first get involved with the Somaly Mam Foundation? What about this foundation speaks to you so much?
SHAY: When I started shooting “Pretty Little Liars,” my makeup artist at the time, Rebecca, was asking me what my passion was, what I wanted to do, what my ultimate goal in life was. I said, “Honestly, I think I was put on this earth to hopefully leave it a better place.” One of the causes close to me is human trafficking, and I was first aware of it when I was modeling in Thailand. I came home to Canada and did more research and found out how big the problem was. Rebecca was telling me about Somaly Mam and this book she read [Somaly’s memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence”] and for Christmas she bought me the book.
Somaly was involved in sex trafficking when she was younger, and she was sold multiple times to different people and had to escape. I want to tell everyone to read the book so they can fully understand her story. She is now helping other girls who were in her situation. I read the book in three days and afterward thought, “I have to come in contact with Somaly and everyone that works there. I want to do something with this organization.”
So I ended up going with my two best friends to Cambodia. We met all the girls and Somaly, of course. She’s opened three centers of her own in Cambodia and has done such an amazing job of rescuing over 7,000 girls and women. I witnessed it myself: all these girls and women who have come out of this so strong thanks to Somaly. Every time you have an organization or anyone trying to help the cause, that’s great, but for some reason Somaly’s really connected with me.
ACT: What do you think people need to know about modern day slavery in Cambodia and elsewhere?
SHAY: I was having this conversation with a friend a few days ago. She was like, “Oh, so this is just in Southeast Asia?” And I was like, “Are you kidding?” This is happening in LA, New York, all over North America. It’s a huge problem everyone should know about, since it’s considered the world’s second largest, fastest growing form of organized crime. It’s estimated to generate over 7 billion dollars per year. That’s insane. Children as young as two are being sold for less than $100, then they have to service thirty men. That obviously varies day to day, but how can that even be happening? I think it’s something we all need to share amongst one another so we all know the facts.
ACT: Can you tell us about your experience visiting Cambodia and being with Somaly Mam? What inspiring stories of change did you see while visiting?
SHAY: When I went down to Cambodia, it was a lot to take in. You’re seeing these children, children, who haven’t even experienced a childhood before coming into Somaly’s centers. I think every child deserves to have a childhood and be carefree. Hearing some of the stories of what they’ve been through is just horrific.
My friends and I went to the Kampong Cham center, and we literally got out of the truck and the younger girls were running to me and my friends. They hadn’t met us before, they had no idea who we were. They didn’t care. It was just the fact we’d come to visit -- that was enough for them to come up and give us a hug. They were saying, “Sister, sister.” That was unconditional love like I’ve never felt in my entire life.
Somaly Mam with some of her colleagues and girls. (Facebook)
Some of the girls had just been rescued a few days before, and they were already going to school, reading books, learning different things that will help them be rehabilitated into society. I went to a hair salon where survivors were working, and they were able to do everything they’d learned in the center and apply it to their lives. Somaly also set up a group of girls called Voices of Change who are survivors who are now welcoming the young girls who come into the centers. When you go to any of the centers, the Voices of Change girls are there, and they’ve been through what the new girls have and they know what it is they need to do to comfort the new girls and how to slowly reintegrate them back into society.
I don’t even know how to describe Somaly. People ask me to describe her in a sentence and it’s like, “That’s impossible!” Somaly is the most vibrant personality I’ve ever met and she’s my biggest inspiration. She’s a very powerful woman who’s given a lot of strength to many, many girls and has been the closest thing to a family to many of them. If I could just be one tenth of what she is, that’s all I could ask for.
ACT: How can people help out the Somaly Mam Foundation?
SHAY: Sharing all the different social media aspects can help. A lot of girls will say to me, “What if we don’t have money?” That’s completely fine. Like the Somaly Mam Foundation on Facebook. Follow Somaly Mam on Twitter. Re-post, re-blog, retweet. Volunteer. Share the information. If you read her book, then pass her book on to a friend. I’ve bought that as a Christmas gift for a lot of my friends. It’s an inspiring story because you see everything she’s been through and she comes out on top.
Somaly Mam signing her very moving memoir, "The Road of Lost Innocence." (Facebook)
If you can spare $10, that supplies a week’s worth of food for a girl in the center. A $50 donation does it year-round. I got a bunch of my friends bracelets for stocking stuffers – they’re from the empowerment store on Somaly’s website and they’re made by the girls.
After you hear this information, you can’t just turn away. Everyone can do their part just by going to the website and educating themselves.
ACT: Can you tell us about the survivor-made jewelry you and others like AnnaLynne McCord like to wear?
SHAY: Somaly has heart-and-hand necklaces and I got that right after reading the book. They’re survivor-made products and when you purchase them, you’re helping a survivor become financially self-sufficient. I love the symbol Somaly has -- it’s basically “wear your heart on your hand.” When you’re wearing it, you’re representing your compassion for the enslaved. She has these beautiful scarves and bracelets and necklaces. You give back when you buy them, and they’re also beautiful pieces of jewelry.
ACT: Can you give us a hint on what’s going to happen next with Emily Fields on “Pretty Little Liars”?
SHAY: After the Halloween episode, we’re going to see how all the girls are dealing with the aftermath of everything, especially with Emily and Nate. We definitely see one of the girls reach their breaking point. We’ll be seeing some of the girls unravel.
ACT: Speaking of Emily, there aren’t many strong female LGBT characters on TV. What’s been the reaction from fans about her? Have a lot of people reached out to say that Emily has inspired them to come out, etc.?
SHAY: Yes, definitely. The fans have been absolutely amazing. People even stop me in the street and say, “Thank you so much. Your character’s helped me come out to my parents.” I’ve not received one bad comment. It’s nice having the topic brought up with young girls and boys and their families who watch the show.
There is just one more thing I’d like to say. It’s not by me, it’s a quote. “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”
Sky's the limit for the girls of Somaly Mam. (Facebook)