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Former NFL player Tim Tebow, left, with Margie Quin, CEO of End Slavery Tennessee, and Shelia McClain, director of residential services at Thistle Farms, on Thursday, May 13, 2021, and Gov. Bill Lee after announcing new partnership to combat human trafficking in Tennessee at the state Capitol. (Photo by Andy Sher/Times Free Press)

This story was updated on Friday, May 14, 2021, at 4:26 p.m. with additional information.

NASHVILLE — Flanked by former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and Tennessee-based anti-human trafficking groups, Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday unveiled a $5.4 million state-funded effort to help combat the problem with a series of partnerships.

During a state Capitol news conference, Lee called the effort a "historical investment in a public-private partnership to end human trafficking in the state of Tennessee."

Calling it a "demand-driven crime" exploiting people in areas ranging from labor and service to commercial sex, the Republican governor said human trafficking has become "one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the country and including our state."

There are cases of human trafficking in all 95 of the state's counties, Lee said.

"We hope that this will facilitate and engage and inspire churches, nonprofits, organizations, individuals, to find out how they can be involved in rescuing women and children in Tennessee," Lee said.

Joining Lee was Tebow, whose Tebow Foundation and its Her Song ministry provide services including long-term residential care for adult female sex-trafficking survivors.

The foundation is getting $1.2 million in state funds to extend the program into Tennessee to help build safe homes here for women. Tebow described becoming passionate about the issue while on a 2013 trip to the Philippines when his father discovered four girls being sold and paid $1,250 to rescue them.

Tebow, now 33, is a former University of Florida star quarterback who played in the NFL for six years. He is eyeing resuming his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He praised Lee and others for supporting anti-trafficking efforts, saying "we're not making this about politics, it's about people."

He said his involvement in Tennessee began several months ago when country music star Luke Bryan and his wife Caroline introduced him to Blake Harris, Lee's chief of staff, at a restaurant.

Tebow, who reportedly is going to sign a one-year contract to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars as a tight end, declined to discuss the move, joking it was "shocking that that was brought up. I would say that today, that's not the focus. Today is about every life that's being trafficked in the state of Tennessee, around the country and around the world."

He praised the efforts of Tennessee-based groups, including End Slavery Tennessee, which provides services, treatment, educational opportunities and residential care to women escaping sex trafficking.

The organization is headed by Margie Quin, who prior to joining ESTN in 2019 served as a former Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation who led a human trafficking task force in the state.

Noting the group has long wanted to expand its efforts, among other things to triple the size of its residential program to 24 beds, Quin said End Slavery Tennessee is "grateful to be presented this incredible opportunity to enhance the human services needed to address the conflict and trauma survivors face and to provide safe, stable housing opportunities."

The group is getting $3.5 million.

Another $600,000 is being awarded to the Tennessee Anti-Slavery Alliance and $100,000 to Thistle Farms, which also aids female survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-424-0484. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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