With the names of human trafficking victims written on their arms or taped onto their chest, 800 runners and walkers gathered in Market Square on Saturday morning for the first annual Run for their Lives race.
Sponsored by Freedom 4/24 with partners Firewall Ministries and the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the race represents efforts to end sexual slavery in Knoxville, raise local awareness and generate funding.
Kelsey Moldrup, a sophomore majoring in special education and a race participant, said she was shocked to learn that sexual slavery occurs locally as well as internationally.
"It's crazy that it happens in Knoxville..." Moldrup said. "I think the more people that know about it, the less it will happen."
According to a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report, Tennessee's geographical position and myriad of interstates are conducive to illegal trafficking. Seventy-eight counties – 85 percent of the total counties in the state – reported at least one case of human sex trafficking. In four counties – Shelby County, Davidson County, Coffee County and Knox County – there were reports of more than 100 cases.
Ryan Barr, executive race director with Freedom 4/24, said he believes human trafficking remains a highly lucrative trade because people are a "renewable resource," unlike other products sold on the black market.
"I'm just so compelled. ... It breaks my heart," Barr said. "It breaks everyone's hearts when we find out that it happens."
Barr explained that in Thailand the majority of men who purchase girls are Westerners.
"They are people who live in our towns, so raising awareness is getting people to stand up," Barr said. "Once people realize that slavery still exists, sexual exploitation is happening in our own backyards, the word of mouth spreads against this."
According to the United Nation's Children's Fund, human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, with children being particularly vulnerable.
For Robert Craig, the 5K represents the culmination of a seven-year goal to eradicate sexual slavery in Knoxville. During a 2006 trip to Cambodia, Craig witnessed children as young as 3-years-old sold into prostitution.
"I want to see our children safe," Craig said. "As a community, we need to educate our community on the evils of (sexual slavery) and how divisive these traffickers are in capturing our children."
For more information about Freedom 4/24, visit their website here.