The women who are fighting to put the brakes on human-trafficking by way of a bike
As twilight sets over the Pacific, the sun ignites the waves, transmuting their cerulean hue to a thousand shades of amber fire. It illuminates strips of shoreline and bent sea grasses, redwood pine cones, and 11 women cranking bicycles chains. They’ve already traveled many miles to make it here and it will be many more sunsets until they stop for good.
These women comprise the second generation of cyclists for Pedal the Pacific, a fundraising event aimed at raising awareness of human trafficking. Each year a new team of eager participants tackles the 1,700 miles of coastline from Seattle to San Diego, creating dialogues in their wake.
Grace Pfeffer, Pedal the Pacific co-founder, says when people see a group of women on bicycles, suited up in matching uniforms and camping gear strapped to their bike racks, it leaves people with no choice but to ask: Why?
“It uses something as small and simple as a bike to start conversations,” Pfeffer says.
Through these conversations, the "PtP" women are able to mobilize not only the communities on the coast, but also those back home. This, they hope, will spark a chain reaction of activism.
“The more it grows, the more people get involved, the more people become interested and the more people hear about it,” biker Emma Orlando says.
PtP’s location plays a crucial role in their efforts, as both California and Texas have the highest rates of human trafficking according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. However, because trafficking such an intrinsically underground crime, Pfeffer says it’s difficult to imagine it perpetrated so close to home.
“It’s still hard for people to believe it’s happening here in Austin,” Pfeffer says, “It’s happening around the corner. It’s not just in the bad neighborhoods and it’s not just happening across the ocean.”
When children are thrown into the mix, it's a bitter pill to swallow. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the 25,000 child runaways reported to the organization in 2017, one in seven were victims of sex trafficking.
“It’s easier for people to believe that a child was abducted and forced into prostitution then it is to see somebody who in some ways has chosen that lifestyle,” biker Kelly Coles says, “But in reality, they had no other choices.”
In shining a light on these dark statistics, PtP hopes to make a difference in a few of the most needed areas.
“If we don’t educate ourselves,” Pfeffer says, “There’s nothing we can do to help.”
One of the critical areas of need revolves around women and young girls, which constitute 75 percent of global human trafficking cases. This is where Pedal the Pacific’s main beneficiary, The Refuge, comes into play. Located on 50 acres of ranchland just outside of Austin, The Refuge focuses providing comprehensive care to young women who are survivors of sex trafficking.
Coles says cases involving minors are complicated, because the law requires them to be under the care of a legal guardian. However, a shortage of volunteers and care facilities means they’re often sent to juvenile detention or even returned to an abusive family.
“They’re being treated as criminals instead of victims,” Coles says,
“[People] don’t understand what they’re going through.”
Where The Refuge differentiates itself is in their long-term approach to survivor rehabilitation. Through physical, psychological, and social therapies, they aim to create a pastoral sanctuary that will help aid their road to recovery.
However, The Refuge would be just a dream if it wasn’t for their volunteers. From couples acting as surrogate parents to hand-painted dove tiles made by community members, many have lent a hand to aid their efforts. This is best exemplified in the chapel’s beams, which are covered in the Sharpied thoughts and prayers of their supporters.
“It’s incredible to see how many people are standing behind them, willing to do what it takes for their recovery,” Coles says.
Pedal the Pacific grew from a desire to help. Pfeffer says none of the three founders were athletes, nor were they cyclists. In fact, not one of them even owned a bike. But their drive to make their voices heard pushed them to step out of their comfort zones and accomplish something grand.
“This injustice is so big and so overwhelming,” Pfeffer says, “and we don’t want to sit back and believe the lie that we can’t make a difference at all.”
They first set their total fundraising goal at ten thousand dollars. But after some outside counsel, they raised it higher, doubling it to twenty thousand dollars.
“That is the biggest number in the world,” Pfeffer said.
By the time they left for the coast on June 14, they’d raised forty thousand dollars.
“As the money just kept coming in,” Pfeffer says, “we realized how much bigger of an effect this trip had than we ever thought it would, and also how much people are looking for ways to get involved.”
Orlando says their runaway success has inspired the cyclists this year to push the envelope and raise more. By working on the foundation set last year, they’re able to focus less on the logistics of the ride itself and more on fundraising efforts.
And that structure has paid off. Currently, the 2018 team has raised over one-hundred thousand dollars and counting for The Refuge. Coles hopes this growth will compound, as next year’s bikers will benefit from this year’s efforts to make PtP a more established organization.
“It’s only going to get stronger in years to come,” Cole says.
Coles’ favorite thing about PtP is the ability it gives her to make a difference. Heavily involved in combating sex-trafficking throughout her college career, she says numerous obstacles have barred her from helping out to her fullest capacity. Whether it was an age restriction or an issue of proper licensing, she says her efforts for the cause always felt too indirect.
“There’s only so many gardens we can help replant,” Cole says.
With PtP, however, those restrictions have vanished. The ride allows teens and young adults to contribute in a real and direct way to a cause they feel so passionate about. This year, their youngest rider—and most enthusiastic, Coles says— has just finished high school and is taking a seat alongside college graduates.
“We can’t sit back and think that someone else better will come after us and do something,” Pfeffer says, “We have to say ‘yes,’ and do it now.”
The women pedaling the coast hope the event grows big enough to raise more than they ever wished. They hope to expand The Refuge, extending its services to adults and young boys, and to deal a significant blow to a murky crime. And one day, they hope to bring sunrises back to the survivors, so that they may once again glow in a thousand shades of amber.