Human trafficking is an issue plaguing Cleveland. Willowbend Farms is holding its upcoming Run for Her Freedom 5K run and 1K walk to not only raise awareness of this growing problem, but also …
Human trafficking is an issue plaguing Cleveland. Willowbend Farms is holding its upcoming Run for Her Freedom 5K run and 1K walk to not only raise awareness of this growing problem, but also to help put a stop to it.
President and co-founder Sarah McKinnis explained Willowbend’s mission is to restore human trafficking survivors, including survivors of sexual exploitation, abuse and violence, which are all encompassed in human trafficking.
Starting up in March 2017, Willowbend’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status was approved in May 2017. McKinnis, along with co-founder Sarah Cantrell, began meeting to pray about which direction to take.
“We are focused on adult women survivors, but we partner with other organizations that work with other profiles besides adult women, so everyone is serviced,” McKinnis said.
A few of these organizations are the ToGetHer Association, Seventh Well, Esther Legacy Ministries and the Zion Project. McKinnis describes the businesses as working hand-in-hand with one another.
Run for Her Freedom starts on Saturday, Oct. 20, at Greenway Park on Raider Drive, and features both a 5-kilometer night race and a 1K walk. The 5K begins at 6 p.m. Various musical entertainment will be present as well as several speakers. The night will conclude with a candlelight ceremony for victims of trafficking.
The event is the result of a Lee University public relations campaign which saw two groups of PR students vying to create the best PR campaign for Willowbend Farms.
“They took our vision and dream and gave us a blueprint for this event. We had been talking about doing a race as well as a public launch, because we’ve had a soft launch, but not a big official one, so this will act as our full public launch,” she added.
Five years ago, McKinnis said she witnessed a trafficking transfer of young women take place at a location in the heart of Cleveland in broad daylight. She said she was paralyzed with shock at the time, and didn’t call the police until the brief transaction was over.
The ordeal began when McKinnis noticed two teenage girls sitting strangely outside a storefront with their heads down, each with a container of supplies and no phones. A van then pulled up, and a man jumped out and let two other girls out of the van. These girls went up to the first pair and took a seat, while the first pair got up and into the van without speaking a word to the man. After the van sped off, McKinnis called the police, who said it was more than likely a human transaction right in the heart of Cleveland.
“I just thought, ‘What did I just witness?’”
She exclaimed. “The police told me to prepare myself because there probably wouldn’t be anything they could do; and that just broke my heart. The police have to hear an admission or catch the criminals in the act. It was very eye opening for me.”
Statistics say human trafficking is a close third to drugs and guns and the market is growing because of the availability of trafficked people. McKinnis adds it’s not a one-time sale, as these people are sold over and over and over.
She cited 2012 statistics, which said 94 minors are trafficked every month in the state of Tennessee. This influx is mostly due to Tennessee’s proximity to Atlanta, whose airport serves as a major hub for traffickers. Nearly every large city is infested with human trafficking, including Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and yes, even Cleveland.
Aside from working with survivors, Willowbend Farms is focused on providing education, awareness and prevention of human trafficking in the community. Serving with local leaders and law enforcement, the organization’s goal is to create protocols to help the community address this.
When speaking to schools, McKinnis said they “talk straight” with the kids in order to avoid sugarcoating the very real threat. While Hollywood would make viewers believe trafficking victims are taken similar to the film “Taken,” rather, it is a long-grooming process where the abductor builds a good relationship with the person they are taking.
When selecting victims, traffickers look for the vulnerabilities in a community like poverty, divorce, discrimination, lack of self-esteem and drug use. Traffickers who have done this for a long time can decide how much money they believe they will make and compare it to how much time they believe will go into grooming the potential victim.
If interested in signing up for the event to help fight this vice, go to RunForHerFreedom.com, or follow the link from Willowbend Farms’ Facebook page. The cost to run is $25. After Sept. 20, the price goes up to $30. T-shirts will be sold at the event.
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