Annika Van Nest might be young—she’s a sophomore at Minnetonka High School—but she’s already working hard to change the world. Annika founded Jumbago Hope, a charitable organization that fights sex trafficking. Interestingly, the experience that inspired her was rooted in a part of history that might, at first, seem unrelated. When Annika was in seventh grade, she and her dad traveled to Poland, where they visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum. Annika says that she was overwhelmed by the horror of the World War II death camp. “Even though I don’t believe in ghosts, seeing the concentration camps where people were tortured and families were destroyed only decades before was both challenging and momentous,” Annika says. “I could feel the evil of the Nazi party as I explored the camp.”
She had just spent spring break in Costa Rica with her family; the contrast between her own privilege, which she readily acknowledges, and the suffering that she became starkly aware of that day at Auschwitz caused her to lie awake that night, trying to make sense of her place in the world. “As I saw where the victims were shot, hung and burned, I couldn't help but ponder on [my fortunate life]. After having a great time in Costa Rica, it made it even harder to see these conditions.” Annika decided that she had to do something for people who were suffering—and, especially, for those who had lost hope that anyone would help them.
“I thought about all the people around the world who must be facing this loneliness and this lack of hope,” Annika says. “I knew there was something I could do.”
The first fundraiser she organized was in support of Hope International, a Christian nonprofit that offers financial services in profoundly impoverished areas of the world. Her goal was to raise $100, but the fundraiser generated a $1,000 donation to Hope International. Annika’s focus became clearer as she learned more about modern-day sex trafficking. The movie Taken, which is about two young women who are kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring, had a deep effect. Then she heard actor Ashton Kutcher speak about sex trafficking and his own foundation, Thorn. Thorn focuses on using technology to monitor traffickers and to identify victims. Annika decided she wanted to help support Thorn with her new charitable organization.
In addition to Thorn, Jumbago Hope makes donations to several other organizations each year. Annika and her team of volunteers (mostly her friends and family) design, produce and sell T-shirts to raise money and organize events like formal dances and yoga workshops.
As part of her work to raise awareness about sex trafficking, Annika—then an eighth-grader—was asked to speak to about 18,000 people at WEDay Minnesota, a large event that works to empower teens and young adults to improve their communities and their global neighbors.
Like most high school sophomores, Annika isn’t exactly sure what the future might hold for her: where she wants to go to college, what she wants to study, and so on. What she does know is that she wants to make a difference—and that no one is too young to start improving the world around them.