A group of cyclists are planning a ride to raise awareness and fund to put an end to human trafficking, one mile at a time
The Freedom Ride 2016 will begin in Bend, Ore., on Sept. 9 and finish in Newport Beach on Sept. 25.
The mission of the 1,500-mile, two-week ride is to raise awareness about human trafficking and move people to action in their own communities, said Freedom Ride Founder and Director Elisabeth “Beth” Gegner.
“It’s going on right here and you can do something about it,” Gegner said. “You can actually save someone’s life.”
If people are aware of the issue, recognize the signs and know how to intervene and report it, they can save a person’s life right in their own neighborhood, she said.
It’s a myth that it’s not happening here in the U.S. or in Orange County, Gegner said.
Newport Beach is not immune to this type of crime, noted Newport Beach Police Department Deputy Chief David McGill.
“Human trafficking is everywhere,” McGill said. “It happens in almost every town in the United States, including towns as wonderful as Newport Beach… This is happening in our own backyard.”
The ride was originally going to end in Los Angeles, McGill explained, but he recommended moving the finish line to Newport Beach for two reasons: His connection to the community and the symbolism.
By holding it in Newport Beach, McGill could help organize the event and coordinate locally. He could also help spread the word about the end of ride event.
Symbolically, it’s also noteworthy to finish a ride that’s raising awareness for human trafficking in a town like Newport Beach. People don’t normally associate this type of crime with affluent towns like Newport, McGill explained.
“But we do,” have that type of crime, McGill said. “We’re no different than any other city.”
Criminals often go to where the money is, and Orange County and Newport Beach have it, he said.
They have had major cases involving Newport Beach, McGill said. Recently, detectives investigated a lead they found on the internet. A meeting at a local hotel was arranged and police arrested a woman. She was cooperative and lead police to a man organizing the crime in Inglewood. Following up on it, they connected her with nonprofit organizations that can help her get out.
“They need support,” and safety, McGill said. “You can’t just leave them.”
Ending the ride in NB will hopefully bring awareness to other towns in Orange County, McGill said. There will be an event at the Newport Dunes to finish off the ride.
Devon, a human trafficking survivor from Seal Beach, will be giving her story about being forcibly sold into the commercial sex trade industry right after high school. She will speak about her experience getting tricked, threatened and then sold.
The event will also feature games, activities, bounce structures, zip lines, bmx show, bike decorating station, live music, vendors, inspiring speakers, and much more.
The free, family friendly event will begin around 11 a.m. and the riders should start to arrive around 1 p.m.
Booths are also available for local businesses to display their goods and services. Volunteers are still needed for the event.
An exhibit titled “Walk in Her Shoes” will showcase shoes of survivors, the smallest from a 6-year-old girl. The interactive display will allow guests to hear each survivor’s story in her own voice.
“You can’t help but be moved,” by the stories of survivors, McGill said.
Another story that will be told at the event will be from one of the riders, Sierra Swift. She will offer a different perspective on the issue, that of a former female pimp.
Swift was attending college when someone approached her, made her a very attractive offer and lured her into the industry. She chose to became a pimp and recruiter.
She would go to classes in the morning and then get high in the afternoon to “numb her conscious,” Gegner explained.
She would recruit girls into prostitution, sell them and drop them off with the “johns,” return to the bar, drink and do it all over again.
She did this for several years before she met someone who helped her turn her life around. Now, she dedicates her life to teaching people how to recognize the warning signs, explaining the dangers, and helping save others.
Swift, now a personal trainer, will be participating in the ride, although she had never ridden a bike until hearing about the Freedom Ride. She began training in July 2016 (coached by Gegner’s friend and former world champion and Olympian Marianne Berglund) and is determined to finish the full ride.
Riding 100 miles a day, for this many days back to back, is really tough, Gegner said.
Also participating in the difficult ride will be NBPD Detective Jason Prince.
“(The tough ride) is going to hurt, but it pales in comparison to the amount of pain and suffering and torture and mental manipulation and struggles that these victims go through on a daily basis,” Prince said. “Being in the field of law enforcement you see, first hand, the effects of human trafficking.”
This is just a unique way of doing his job of battling crime, Prince said.
He has a passion for helping and serving others, which overlap his beliefs as a Christian. It’s important to administer help to those in need, he said.
The 37-year-old triathlete also has a love for cycling. Although he hasn’t done a charity ride of this distance before, he’s excited about the challenge.
“It hits all the right strings for me,” Prince said. “I was looking for my next big endurance event and being able to do it for a good cause is right up my alley.”
It’s daunting, he admitted. Riding that many miles day after day – and spending that much time on a small bicycle seat – will be tough. He’s been training and riding a lot to prepare, he said.
“Other than that, I’m just going to hope for a lot of downhill,” Prince joked.
The Newport Beach Police Association paid the fees for Prince.
People can also choose to participate in a two-day ride from Santa Barbara to Newport Beach, or, on the north end of the path, from Bend, Ore., to Oakridge, Ore.
McGill will also be riding – in a van – along the route.
They will discuss human trafficking at every stop they make, to whoever will listen, McGill said. He’ll be a representative of the NBPD and the California Peace Officers Association, a group he serves as the first vice president.
He also intends to discuss the issue with the CPOA when he moves forward as the president of the group.
“We can do a better job in law enforcement to recognize what it actually is and to have that victim-centric approach,” McGill said. “I want to help law enforcement open their eyes.”
In his nearly 30-year career, the method to deal with prostitution was to treat them as criminals that chose this life.
“We really didn’t look at them as potential victims,” McGill said. “I’m guilty of (thinking like) that too.”
It is now a victim centered approach to combating this type of crime, McGill explained. In most cases (but not all because some do choose to work in the sex industry), they are being forced to do the work. Their lives or the lives of family members are often threatened.
“This is modern day slavery,” McGill said.
They may not be chained or bound and gagged, McGill said, but they’re threatened, coerced, and brainwashed. Someone is controlling their actions, he said.
“It’s psychological warfare,” he said.
To repair themselves mentally and move forward is a long and terribly difficult process, McGill said. The key is to develop a relationship with the victims and earn their trust, McGill said, so that they can help.
But not all law enforcement are on board yet with this new way of thinking, McGill said.
Part of the reason he became involved with the Freedom Ride was to encourage other law enforcement agencies to reconsider how they approach the issue.
It’s the most rapidly expanding crime in the United States, McGill said.
“This is important… It’s something we need to pay attention to,” McGill said. “Everybody wake up, let’s fight this, it doesn’t have to happen. California can be a leader in this.”
Nowadays, it’s also not as public or visible of a crime, McGill noted. The public may not see as many people walking the street because it’s hidden in the shadows of the internet, McGill said.
The warning signs might also be very subtle, McGill said.
Someone might approach a teen girl and tell her she could model, or at a group party or event. They might be showering the victim with compliments and gifts. They might be slowly asking them to take risks.
“These predators are good at preying on the psychological aspects of vulnerable kids,” McGill said.
They lure them in and the victims can’t get out. Only one percent of victims ever make it out of the life, Gegner said.
“That’s terribly low odds,” McGill said.
There is a better chance at saving kids through awareness and prevention, McGill and Gegner noted.
“Now that they know how to recognize it, they can go to their friends and warn them and potentially save their lives,” Gegner said.
“To be aware is to be armed,” McGill added.
Schools, hospitals, and places of lodging are the choke points where people may see a victim of human trafficking, McGill said.
McGill also encouraged parents to have an open conversation with their kids about the issue. Freedom Ride also approached Newport-Mesa Unified School District about providing some education about human trafficking to the kids. It’s phenomenal to have NMUSD involved, McGill said.
It’s not about fear or sending a scary message, she explained, it’s about empowering them with information.
“It’s so you’re well equipped and you can keep yourself safe,” Gegner noted.
Gegner became passionate about the issue following a devastating cycling accident in Germany.
She was hit and thrown over the roof of a vehicle. She landed on her back and broke five vertebrae.
“I shouldn’t have survived,” Gegner said.
She wasn’t sure she would ever be able to walk again, let alone ride a bike.
After three days of not moving from her hospital bed, she got up and walked to the restroom to take a shower. She decided to keep moving and walked out of the hospital, not stopping for three miles.
“I was totally restored,” she said.
After surviving the traumatic and nearly fatal incident, Gegner reflected on her own life.
“I said to myself and to God, ‘This is a sign, I’ve got to do something with my life. I really want my life to have significance,’” she said.
I decided to do something to change the world, so to speak, Gegner said.
She had learned about human trafficking earlier in her life while volunteering at an orphanage in Thailand in the early 1990s. Many of the girls had been trafficked and Gegner was touched by their personal stories.
So in August 2015, Gegner rode the Oregon to Orange County route by herself (aside from a few friends joining her on a couple short jaunts). Her goal was to raise awareness by talking to people along the way and raise money for a home in Thailand. People started telling her that it was also happening in America.
“As I got educated about that I realized that it’s a big epidemic in our country,” Gegner said.
She started thinking on a bigger scale and the Freedom Ride was born. It’s morphed into a huge project since then, taking an incredible amount of time and effort of a small group of volunteers, but Gegner’s passion is as strong as ever.
“People are (helping) out of the goodness of their hearts and are moved by the cause and inspired by the stories,” Gegner said. “Together, we can raise awareness and support.”