Invisible beyond the horizon, too many men are trafficked and enslaved aboard fishing ships in Thailand’s $1 billion fishing industry.
These are people who exist in the shadows across the globe, part of a modern-day slave trade that represents a major humanitarian issue. The International Labour Organization estimates there are 21 million victims of forced labor worldwide, including 4.5 million victims of forced sexual exploitation. Human trafficking can happen anywhere—even in the United States.
Dr. Katherine Welch ’93 is bringing light to the darkness for victims of abuse, exploitation and trafficking. She is the founder of Relentless, a global consulting agency that trains organizations to assist marginalized populations who need access to basic health care services and other resources.
Care is a Calling
Welch never intended to go to medical school after studying biology and chemistry at the University of Indianapolis, instead pursuing a graduate degree in physical therapy. But her mentor, Chemistry Professor Joe Burnell, encouraged her to apply to medical school, leading her to attend Indiana University School of Medicine in 1993 and complete her pediatric internship and residency at the University of Alabama in 1997.
Following her residency, Welch accepted a position as a physician and co-medical director for a small hospital on the Thai-Burma border, serving refugees, poor villagers and other marginalized groups; she soon discovered it was her calling.
“It was that first experience at the border hospital where my sense of justice was deeply moved and sparked,” Welch says. “I had never before encountered people living in such conditions, fleeing from their own government, and, most of all, so many people without any health care.”
The Birth of a Relentless Fight
Welch’s experiences spurred her to form Relentless, which trains medical professionals to identify warning signs of exploitation. Many victims who have been trafficked, according to Welch, report having seen a doctor who didn’t realize their situation. Relentless also works to set up clinics where they’re most needed, such as red light districts in Bangkok. Services may involve free HIV tests and consultation. Even more importantly for trafficked people, “it’s a way for them to get to know organizations that are willing and able to help them get out of that life,” Welch said. “If you want out, we can set things in motion to help you get out.”
An Education in Compassion
As Welch went from Indiana to saving lives halfway around the world, she recalled how her experience at the University of Indianapolis shaped her path.
“The smaller school environment and personalized attention I received from everyone — including professors, coaches, guidance counselors and administrative staff — helped me develop as a person and gain confidence in myself. Professors such as Joe Burnell could see more potential in me than I could see in myself at that time and actively developed that. For that, I will be ever grateful,” said Welch.
Welch’s educational experiences also gave her a tenderness for humanity unlike anything she had experienced before. Using her skills as a physician to respond to the needs and injustices around her, Welch now puts UIndy’s motto, “Education for Service,” into practice every day.