Anita Cordell knows it’s tempting for viewers to see her poised, professional performances on TV and film and assume her road to stardom has been easy. But, she wants audiences to know the truth: Her path has been plentiful with potholes.

The Eastern Jackson County woman’s desire for reality isn’t random. In fact, it’s paramount to what has morphed into her purpose for standing in the spotlight – to expose the horrors and magnitude of human trafficking, a form of bondage that affects too many children and teens.

Although Cordell has been an actress for more than a decade, she hasn’t always known the purpose behind her performances. But, she believes her life’s path has been filled with lessons and important acquaintances who have helped mold her for to answer the call.

The lessons go back to her childhood growing up in a small town in Kansas. Her father, a preacher, had a habit of handing the microphone to his children and requesting the recitation of a favorite Bible verse or spiritual song. While Cordell did not relish the spotlight as a child, she willingly learned to perform when in possession of the mic.

“I realize now my dad was training me and he didn’t even know it,” she said, referring to Proverbs 22:6, which states: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Cordell said she’s always felt a nudge toward helping others escape life’s injustices, and her brushes with adversity have helped open her eyes to obstacles and develop empathy. Her life’s struggles included a seven-year stint as a single mother while working to support herself and her daughter and attending college full-time. She earned a degree in business and marketing.

“I’ve had several incidents in my life where I’ve been broken,” she said. “I’ve had bad things happen to me, and I’ve come out on the other side. I’ve risen out of really difficult situations and I know others can, too.”

Cordell utilized her business degree to begin selling real estate in 2001, a job she now tackles in addition to performing.

“I’ve never wanted to be a $10 million real estate agent,” she said.

Cordell began performing as a hobby, volunteering in church productions, but, made the leap to professional acting after she met an actress who, upon learning of her volunteer stage work, encouraged her to pursue acting as a career. Cordell answered a casting call for a local independent film. She still remembers her first line: “Hi. May I help you?” She continued and became a television spokesperson for Slim 4 Life, a weight-loss program, along with being in more than 100 television commercials and more than 50 independent films. Today, her real estate business finances her artistic and humanitarian endeavors.

“I tell people I don’t go and play golf on my days off,” she said. “I get to go play on the set and sometimes I get paid for it.”

Helping youth

Once she had film acting experience, she looked for positions in which she could fulfill her passion for helping girls and young women who face social injustices.

Cordell and her husband, Nathan, parents of three children, became foster parents and that began their process of learning some of the adversities faced by children who end up in foster homes, many of whom are neglected and abused before entering the system. Cordell also became aware of how some children become runaways, making them vulnerable to those who prey on young people caught up in bad situations. As Cordell learned more, she discovered how often the cycle spirals until the children become victims of sex trafficking.

Cordell’s increased awareness led her to seek more information. About four years ago, she attended an event in which a Kansas City woman chronicled her experiences as a runaway, then homeless teen, drug addict and, finally, a victim of sex trafficking. Christine McDonald, whose drug addiction for years masked the pain of a degenerative eye disease that eventually caused blindness, has turned her life around and is now a mother who speaks about her experiences to increase awareness. She wrote a book, “Cry Purple,” which explains her story. Cordell and McDonald became friends.

“A lot of actors and actresses produce their own content,” Cordell said, explaining that doing so allows for more control.

Cordell launched River Productions in 2010. She starred in a short film, “House Mother,” playing a woman in charge of preparing girls for sex trafficking. Her character eventually helps the girls escape bondage and return to their homes and families.

For her role, Cordell was awarded best lead actress in a short film in 2016 at the International Christian Film Festival in Orlando, Florida. The festival is the largest festival of its kind in the country, she said.

To spread awareness, Cordell recently founded “I Will Rise,” an organization dedicated to spreading the message about the magnitude of human trafficking, a problem profoundly impacting the Kansas City area.

Russ Tuttle founded the Stop Trafficking Project and is on the board of directors for Kansas City Street Hope. He also developed and operates Aware KC, which exposes the issues of social media, the role it plays in sexual exploitation of students and domestic minor sex trafficking. He speaks to church and school groups to “expose the lures,” many of which are found on social media, according to the group’s website.

The cycle begins with kids who need attention and find it through social media, where predators are looking for kids to exploit.

“It’s very easy online to be someone you’re not and misrepresent who you are,” Tuttle said, referring to adults who pose as other children who empathize with students who complain about parents or homework.

“Some horrors are so great that we want to look away,” Tuttle’s website explains. The only way to eradicate such exploitation is to educate people by exposing the warning signs and equipping them with a way to act. “Inaction and willful ignorance … allow this darkness to spread,” the website states.

Current project

Cordell’s organization has a similar mission, but, will reach people through film. She is crafting a script for a short film that will document the subject. Cordell, who will act as the film’s producer and director, currently is raising funds to pay for the project. More information is available, and donations can be sent to the website, https://iwillriseproject.com/.

She hopes to raise at least $200,000, but ideally will collect the $2 million required to hire what she calls Los Angeles area A-list actors and actresses to make a “top-notch film,” she said. A fundraising deadline of October will allow Cordell to meet the production schedule, which calls for completing the film by the end of this year. Cordell hopes to partner with local businesses “to help unite the whole city to film this story.” For more information, contact Cordell at info@riverproductions.org.

A recent segment on a local television news program, which chronicled Cordell’s story, led to some donations, she said. But, she’s not even close to reaching her goal and calls it a grass-roots effort.

But Cordell knows the result will be worth her efforts.

“Little girls and boys have a vision of being firefighters and police officers,” she said. “They don’t have a vision of being on the streets.”