Mural Turns Heads, Opens Eyes to Opiates and Human Trafficking

A Boston artist is aiming to uplift others and support the community-building efforts of victims' advocates through his latest mural.

Alex Cook is working in downtown Burlington, Vermont, on a large mural that spells out the words "You Are Loved" along a brick wall on Cherry Street, just steps from the city's famous Church Street Marketplace. Community volunteers picked up brushes Friday to help him paint.

"If this message really lands with somebody, it can be life-changing," Cook told NBC Boston.

While the kind thought is sure to reach a broad spectrum of locals and visitors to Burlington, a specific target for the mural's message is people experiencing drug addiction and human trafficking.

The U.S. Attorney for Vermont invited Cook to create the mural as something of a community-wide group hug in one of the busiest and most visible parts of the city.

"What is it that drives the U.S. Attorney's office to prosecute human trafficking — other than actual care for other humans in our community?" Cook noted. "It's love for others that is behind their work."

Cook's been telling people they are loved all over the country through a multi-year project to uplift others. His website shows murals completed in seven states and two countries, so far.

The Vermont mural follows a sharp jump in human trafficking cases through the federal prosecutor's office, said victims' advocate Aimee Stearns. Often, addicts looking for a drug fix end up exploited by dealers.

When asked if she thought survivors of human trafficking felt loved before they entered that world, Stearns answered, "They definitely don't. And I think that's why they get into drug abuse and get into the trafficking life, and what we're hoping to do is really change that message and them on a different trajectory."

Human trafficking survivor Megan McCarthy said she once spent two months in hell: in a Connecticut hotel room, forced to trade sex with strangers for heroin.

She was proud to say she is now sober, on a good path living in the Burlington area, and hoping Cook's colorful project opens eyes to the problem.

"A lot of people would rather it be hidden so that they don't have to think about how it's a real thing that happens," McCarthy said of human trafficking. "And I think it’s time that it comes to light and people take it more seriously."

Even folks not battling drugs or their horrible side effects should be able to take something away from the new "You Are Loved" mural, the artist bet: after all, who couldn't use a little more love?

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