She certainly hasn’t dedicated more than a decade of her life to combating human trafficking for the money – she hasn’t drawn a salary in over a year.
“This is not about who’s famous and who gets more money,” said Rodriguez, 57, the founder and executive director of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “This is about people that are suffering.”
Still, the Bonita Springs resident took time out of her schedule this week to drive to Tallahassee, where she was one of two women inducted Tuesday night into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.
“These are human beings. These are children,” Rodriguez said during an emotional ceremony in the Capitol courtyard. “Not only international, but now our domestic, our U.S. kids, are now victims of this horrific crime. Please, I beg of you, I beg of our governor, our attorney general, everyone please help me, help me find these victims. Help me rescue them.”
Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Florida in the 1970s, is the first Southwest Florida woman inducted into the hall. She said she was nominated by a former employee of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
“What’s impressive is the fact that here’s an individual who took it upon herself to change history,” said Gov. Rick Scott, who made the final hall of fame selections. “I mean, human trafficking is a big problem in our state, it’s a big problem in our country, and it’s a big problem world wide. She, on her own, got started and had a dramatic impact.”
Tuesday’s other inductee was the late Mary Brennan Karl, a WWII-era educator from Daytona.
About 150 people attended the ceremony, including Brennan’s now elderly son, Fred Karl, the former Hillsborough County administrator.
Rodriguez and Brennan join 80 other women – businesswomen, journalists, politicians, scientists and athletes – in the hall of fame; their plaques adorning a wing of the first floor of the Florida Capitol. Famous inductees include singer/songwriter Gloria Estefan, tennis player Chris Evert, the nation’s first female attorney general, Janet Reno, and authors Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
“When I saw all the names that were listed I was like ‘oh my God, and here me,’ ” she said. “But I was very honored and very humbled, and very shocked.”
Rodriguez was described Tuesday as an “indomitable force in the global fight against human trafficking.” She started her work against human trafficking in the late 1990s, while working as a victim’s advocate with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.
While working in Immokalee, Rodriguez came across her first human trafficking case – a Guatemalan girl who had been kidnapped and sold into a life of domestic servitude.
“I could not understand how human beings were treated worse than animals,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez established the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking in 2004. She is also an international liaison for the U.S. Department of State and a trainer for the Organization of American States.
In 2004, Rodriguez was honored by President George W. Bush for her work rescuing human trafficking victims.
Rodriguez most recently made news when she traveled to Dallas in February on the hunt for child prostitutes and sex slaves brought in for the Super Bowl. Her coalition identified 48 leads during their time in Dallas, and six girls were eventually rescued by law enforcement, she said.
The Florida Women’s Hall of Fame began in 1982, and became permanent, by law, in 1992.
The Florida Commission on the Status of Women, a diverse group of women appointed from around the state, accepts nominations from April 1 to July 15 every year. The commission then narrows the list down to 10 finalists, and from that list the governor selects up to three inductees.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist allowed Scott to make this year’s selections.
“When we narrowed it down to 10, (Rodriguez) really stood out among those 10 because human trafficking obviously is a huge issue in the state of Florida,” said Claudia Kirk Barto, a member of the commission.
Naples was slated to have its first inductee in 2007.
However, Kathy Herrmann Catino, the former CEO of the Shelter for Abused Women and Children of Collier County, asked that her name be withdrawn after she was accused of pushing an employee and voter intimidation. She was eventually arrested.
However, investigations into the accusations against Catino were eventually dropped.
Connect with Ryan Mills at http://www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan-mills/