Most people are shocked to discover girls as young as 10 are sold for sex every day in the United States. Officials estimate 100,000 to 300,000 American children are exploited each year in this $32 billion industry, and worldwide the number is close to 1.2 million.
Pimps use violence and coercion to force these young girls into compliance and then traffickers sell them online. The Department of Justice estimates 12- to 14-year-olds are most at risk; globally victims are found as young as 5 years old.
El Dorado Hills resident and mother Vicki Zito’s 17-year-old daughter was abducted from Safeway’s parking lot in 2008 and was trafficked in the Bay Area until she was rescued a week later by FBI agents. The Zitos’ story first brought the worldwide prevalence of sex trafficking to our community. If it can happen in El Dorado Hills, it can happen anywhere.
Zito and other El Dorado Hills women founded Run for Courage, an annual race that since 2010 has increased awareness and raised more than $300,000 for victims of human trafficking.
Because 13 is the average victim’s age, educating middle school, high school and college students is a top priority. This year, the non-profit’s new education component will likely reach 3,000 youth, said Ashlie Bryant, executive director and co-founder of Run for Courage. The education approach is two-fold, explained Bryant and Zito. They talk about red flags with teens and what to do to get help and they also they want young people to know they have the power to abolish human trafficking.
“This is the generation that can stop it,” said Bryant. “When they’re judges or serving on a jury someday, they will understand the dynamic that keeps kids victimized. It’s so misunderstood.”
They’d like to start with equating prostitution and human trafficking.
“It’s a caging of the mind,” said Zito. “Human trafficking has been living under the guise of prostitution far too long. This is not a victimless crime.”
Bryant and Zito talked with 240 health class students at Oak Ridge last week and when they left, 14-year-old student Rachel Luz said of the presentation, “I believe everything my mom has told me now.”
Oak Ridge health and dance teacher, Kim Franklin, accompanied her classes and said, “In recent years, I’ve developed a heart for victims of sex trafficking and I’ve donated money to help rescue girls from this modern-day slavery. However, this was to overseas organizations. I had no idea, until recently, that this horrific crime is a major problem in our own country! I am proud to sponsor Run For Courage by participating in their community events and to raise money to fight this insidious network.”
Zito and Bryant also talked with 400 Union Mine High School students earlier this month.
“I am a huge champion of Run for Courage,” said Union Mine principal Tony DeVille. “After talking with Ashlie, and developing a better awareness myself of the human trafficking problem in the world (and right in our own backyard), we felt it was important to share that knowledge with our students, teachers and staff. Additionally, we felt that after hearing Ashlie and Vicki, our students would respond to the call to action to safeguard our young people against exploitation and manipulation. It was clear, by the way that our students responded — quiet respectfulness and intelligent, thoughtful questions — that the presentation resonated with them.”
The other component of Run for Courage is to raise funds to support beneficiaries, or awareness, prevention and restoration programs consistent with the organization’s own mission to combat human trafficking.
“They’re the boots on the ground,” said Zito, who acts as RFC’s director of beneficiary programs. “They don’t have time to raise money, so we do it for them.”
The fourth annual Run for Courage will take place Saturday, Sept. 28. More than 90 percent of funds raised go directly toward victims.
Beginning at the Parkway in Folsom, Run for Courage participants may walk or run a 5K or 10K.
“People run this race for the cause,” said Bryant. “They often say it’s unlike any other race they’ve been to.”
This year’s run will include honoring two survivors. Samantha Dillard from the FBI’s Innocence Lost task force will be present, as will Vivienne Harr, a 9-year-old who made national news when she held a lemonade stand for 365 straight days, through rain and shine, to raise money to end child slavery.
The anthem will be sung by teens and the national guard will be represented by teens as well, the demographic Run for Courage most wants to reach.
“It will be an event for the whole family,” said Bryant and Zito. “It will all be done in an age-appropriate way.”
For the first time, a second race is scheduled around Lake Merritt in Oakland on Nov. 2.
“We are thrilled about this expansion,” said Bryant. “Our mission is to raise awareness in every city around the country. Our vehicle to do that is our races. Each new race means greater awareness and more funding for victim restoration.”
Run for Courage seeks to register 4,000 race participants between both the Folsom and Oakland races and raise $200,000 this year alone. The final funding total will be announced on Dec. 31.
Virtual runners are welcome to sign-up and will receive a Run For Courage T-shirt. For more information or to register visit runforcourage.org.
After a long vetting process, Run for Courage leaders recently announced its list of nine beneficiaries for 2013:
“We wish we could help fund every anti-trafficking program,” said Zito. “However, as a non-profit we have limited funds and deciding which programs to fund is a difficult process. The beneficiaries selected are doing amazing things and we are proud to be able to support them in their efforts. Someday, with the help of more funding, we might be able to completely support these organizations.”
Asked how her daughter is doing today, Zito said, “As hard as it is for her, she talks about her experience as often as she can. Her courage and resilience inspire me to do this work.”