Albert, Deidre Pujols swing for the fences with Strike Out Slavery initiative

·MLB columnist
Albert Pujols is welcomed into the 500 Homerun Club next to his wife Deidre at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 7, 2014 in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)
Albert Pujols is welcomed into the 500 Homerun Club next to his wife Deidre at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 7, 2014 in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)

They have a daughter named Isabella. She has Down syndrome. So that is where they lay their hearts every day, with Isabella and the boys and girls like her, with those who’d need a little more love and attention, who’d return such a gift by growing up happy and secure.

Being different, perhaps, was better when wrapped in Albert Pujols’ hug, when warmed by Deidre Pujols’ smile, and everyone came to believe that — the children and their parents, Isabella and Albert and Deidre, anyone who’d witnessed the hugs and smiles.

They called their pursuit the Pujols Family Foundation. It was theirs because she was what they could see and understand, Isabella standing beside them, growing up, working a little harder at it than some, laughing louder than most, and at the end of the day their girl, always and forever, she who inspired their passion.

The world is bigger at times. You fold it all up into who you are and what you are, digest it that way, and then one day there’s another little girl, and another, and then hundreds and thousands and it never ends. They’re in trouble too, not because of a chromosome, but because they are young or vulnerable or terrified, because they are all of that, and they’ve run out of people who could see and understand.

“I’m a mom of five kids,” Deidre said. “And this hurts my heart.”

Deidre and Albert have launched an initiative called Strike Out Slavery, aimed at raising awareness and funds in the fight against human trafficking and sexual exploitation, wedding Albert’s platform and Deidre’s fervor. They’ll take the cause to Angel Stadium on Saturday night, the coming-out event for an effort they hope furthers the local and global consciousness of a dark issue that turns tens of millions of victims into an estimated $150 billion industry.

The numbers were too big to fathom, which was how Deidre found herself in Mexico City, in Cambodia, in places where the number was one — a woman with nowhere to turn, a little girl selling condoms for her mother, a little boy forced into the streets to beg, his mother dead from AIDS. In Orange County, too. In places where trafficking and forced labor and prostitution can be lost in the big houses and shiny cars and not-in-my-neighborhoods.

“To not do something,” Deidre said, “means you’re just part of the problem.

“I wasn’t going to focus on the darkness. I was going to focus on bringing the light and being the light.”

If there is a distinction to be drawn between the mother who seeks to save her own child and the mother who hopes to save them all, it is lost in Deidre Pujols, who made Isabella into all of the children, and is determined to turn that one brown-eyed soul in Cambodia into as many of the children as she can reach. Along with their mothers and fathers. Along with the lost young women trapped by abuse and neglect and hopelessness. It began with Deidre’s own tears, followed by her own determination to make it right, her against the millions if it had to be. Albert calls her Wonder Woman.

“She gets something in her head, in her heart,” he said, smiling, “and she won’t stop.”

For six years Rebecca Bender was sold into hotel rooms with men she did not know for a man who held her against her will. Trafficked off a college campus, she tells a story of a middle-class life turned into manipulative and drug-addled hell, of a small daughter raised in the eye of the suffering, and of escape and recovery. Bender’s program, the Rebecca Bender Initiative, attempts to help the women swallowed and forgotten by society as she was. There’s a way out, she said. A way back. And a way forward. It begins, perhaps, in the public recognition that it is there, that they are there, living just out of sight, suffering and dying there too. And so along the way in her fight to bring awareness to a crime that goes block-by-block and country-by-country, she met Deidre Pujols.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this lady is a kick in the pants,’” Rebecca said. “’I love her.’”

They work together now.

Four years ago, Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, organized the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit. She chases the pimps, the panderers and the traffickers. She searches for the 12-year-olds snatched from the streets. She punishes those who brand their women with irons, who whip them and hold them in ice baths and then send them back to the corners. She uncovers the plots to hold foreign nationals against their will, their passports confiscated, their lives reduced to 20-hour workdays and bottomless debts.

Albert Pujols watches during a ceremony honoring his 600th career home run as his wife Deidre looks on in Anaheim, Calif., Saturday, July 1, 2017. (AP)
Albert Pujols watches during a ceremony honoring his 600th career home run as his wife Deidre looks on in Anaheim, Calif., Saturday, July 1, 2017. (AP)

“People can help,” she said. “It’s occurring right in front of us. Right in our neighborhoods. If people have children, daughters, they’re at risk. Every kid has a cellphone. They’re at risk of being trafficked.

“Is this the America that we want? That people are being exploited and used? And how are we contributing?”

She met Deidre and Albert. They work together now. She called their commitment to her professional efforts, “Extremely unusual.”

“Their devotion to this is pretty much unprecedented,” Schroeder said. “Their devotion, it’s not fly-by-night. They’re putting their hearts and souls into this.”

The Angels, too, she said, “Really need to be commended. They’re really brave. They’re really forward thinking. To take on a problem this big, it’s the fastest-growing crime in the world, the second biggest financially behind drugs, a monumental public issue. They’re very brave.”

Deidre and Albert Pujols have a stake in it now. In all the little boys and girls who belong to other people, who belong to them now. In the women and men who can’t get out, or who do and then have nowhere to go, no one to ask for help. First, we need to know it’s there. Then, we need to know what to do about it. Then, maybe, it’ll get better. The world is bigger at times.

“I’m looking for people’s souls,” Deidre said.

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