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Fighting Human Trafficking – One Climb at a Time

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For two hours, Lindsay Mitchell’s hand has been numb with frostbite. The porters traveling up the mountain with her have been hitting her arm for 20 minutes just to bring back the blood circulation.  She’s already climbed 13,000 feet, she’s short of breath, and the feeling of delirium is starting to set in.

A couple more thousand feet and she’ll be at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. But she’s got to keep moving. Resting for even a short period of time could cause her body to shut down. Through the blistering -30 degrees Fahrenheit weather, she pushes on. Her husband and two small children are back home in sunny and humid South Florida. Yet here is Lindsay, trying to balance the necessary physical and mental strength to succeed (and survive) while climbing Africa’s tallest peak and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. She wanted the peak. Not just for herself or the money she had been pledged, but because summiting meant more than just conquering a mountain. It meant hope, something Lindsay had felt in Brazil seven years earlier.

Lindsay traveled to Brazil on a group missions trip in 2005. She found herself in awe of the vast beauty of the country and the city of Rio de Janeiro with its picture-perfect views – beautiful sandy beaches, people drinking from coconuts, and the sound of music filling the streets.  Yet the next day Lindsay became aware of a much darker side of the country. Her group loaded into buses and started up the dirt roads leading up a mountain. On the drive, Lindsay’s curiosity led to a surprising truth.

“Every couple miles I saw little white houses to my left and right. I asked our guide ‘Do people live in these houses?’ He said, ‘No. The houses you see are used as brothels and for the prostitution of young girls.’”

The white houses continued to be appear on the drive. Finally, the bus stopped at the top of a mountain into an area that looked similar to a campsite.

“I saw about 25 young girls from ages 5 to 18 playing outside. Our guide explained that where we were standing was once a brothel but had now become a place of shelter, rescue, school and safety for these women. I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with these girls. Even though I couldn’t speak their language I could see years of pain in their eyes. But I had hope for them because they were rescued. I wondered how many girls were in the houses that still needed to be rescued?”

This day marked the beginning of Lindsay’s desire to assist the vulnerable and do what she could to help end human trafficking.

According to the Polaris Project, “the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. 5.5 million of those are children. 14.2 million of those are victims of labor exploitation…[and] forced labor generates annual profits of US$ 150 billion. Globally, the ILO estimates that there are 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.” The Global Slavery Index states that there is “an estimated 35.8 million men, women and children around the world trapped in modern slavery.”  The estimates may vary, but the amount of victims impacted and entrapped in human trafficking is truly enormous.

“The difference between human trafficking and these other crimes is that people can be bought and sold over and over. People are disposable.”

So what led Lindsay to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? The overwhelming knowledge that people are being trafficked around the world and the fact that she could do something to help.  In 2012, Lindsay learned about the Freedom Climb from a friend and past participant named Lori Deglar. The Freedom Climb is “a project of Operation Mobilization (OM) that brings hope and transforms lives of women and children who are being exploited, enslaved, and trafficked.” This project seeks to engage action on modern day slavery. Participants climb a mountain (or become “virtual freedom climbers” without physically climbing) and raise awareness and funds to support the various worldwide projects of OM to help combat human trafficking.

“The purpose of the Freedom Climb is not just about climbing a mountain; it’s a way to engage in this global battle and strategically help these women and children. Climbing a mountain is merely a symbolic gesture of what women and children around the world go through every single day. The Freedom Climb looks to break the cycle of Human Trafficking in three key areas: prevention, restoration and development…”

OM completes these projects with the staff workers and volunteers they have around the world. The funds raised from the Freedom Climb support projects such as preventative measures to help families know what to look for in trafficking predators. Some projects include providing for a school in Zambia, a day center for children in Moldova, or prenatal care in Asia. Rescue and rehabilitation projects are present in countries like Cambodia, Kosovo, and Greece. OM also has development projects, which provide microloans or skills training to women in places like Costa Rica, Argentina, or Pakistan.

“I finally found a way where I could do SOMETHING that could help stop these cycles. Listening to her [Lori’s] story and hearing what this climb was all about I knew I had to be a part of this! I ended up signing up alongside Debbie Johnson for the Freedom Corporate Climb 2015. Debbie Johnson and I were a team that represented our church – Boca Raton Community Church.”

Thus began an exciting road of fundraising and training that led to the climbing of Mt. Kilimanjaro last February. Lindsay and Debbie had a goal of raising $60,000 but through various fundraisers, such as luncheons, dinners, craft fairs, and donations, they were able to raise an astounding $118,000.  These fundraisers not only provided a means for people to support projects to fight human trafficking, but were a way for more people to become exposed to and aware of human trafficking in general.

Was everyone Lindsay met a supporter? Not quite…

“Most people were very supportive to my climb – especially when I would share the heart wrenching statistics of human trafficking.  [However,] I came across a few people who actually criticized me saying that ‘I was not a good mom to leave my children to do such a thing.’ As a mom of two, Gracie 3.5 years old and Liam 2 years old, I want to teach my children that I am not just a mom but a woman fighting for  other women who have no one to fight for them. I would hope and pray someone would do the same for my children if the roles were reversed. I had to constantly remind myself the reason why I was climbing – to bring hope and freedom to individuals stuck in the chains of modern day slavery and to share with them the love of Jesus Christ.”

Seven months before the climb Lindsay began intensively training – that is, making up for the lack of any hills or mountains in Florida by running stairs, weight lifting, doing hot yoga or anything else she could think of.

“When I told people I was training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – ‘the roof of Africa’ – when I live at sea level – many people just laughed as if I was joking. Being that we have all the oxygen we need in South Florida, there was not much I could do to train for altitude. Our weatherman says it’s 70 degrees out and that’s considered a cold front. It would be nothing like the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, 30 degrees below. I had always dreamed of going to Africa but could never have imagined facing one of the tallest mountains in the world. I trained 4-5 days a week early before my kids were awake in the morning.”

The constant training was far from easy and the early mornings and muscle pains were hard to endure.

“Some mornings my alarm would go off and I would say, ‘It can’t be time to train -the moon is still out.’ But the training wasn’t for me it was for those women and young girls without a voice. I had to get up because I was their voice.”

Lindsay got to have a “practice run” when her team did a training climb up Pikes Peak in Colorado. This was her first mountain she had ever climbed, and she reached the summit at 13,000 feet.

“I’m a pretty adventurous person, but this hike was a good wake up call. It took everything out of me. The temperature was close to that of Mount Kilimanjaro, yet there’s more oxygen at Pikes Peak and it was a very difficult hike.”

Lindsay kept up her training regime and eventually prepared to board her plane for the two week trip to Tanzania.  The team spent seven days climbing, from the base to the summit and back down. They began in a lush forest filled with chattering monkeys and colorful birds, then midway they were encountering rocky terrain, and finally they reached the icy wonderland that led to the summit Uhuru, which is Swahili for “freedom,” a perfect place to reach on the Freedom Climb.

“We spent the night on the mountainside in our cozy tents. Climbing this mountain was not only physically tiring but also mentally challenging. There were moments that went by when I thought about my family and loved ones and wanting to talk to or see them but knew I had to continue climbing. The actual summit day and night was the hardest thing I have ever faced. When you face the actual summit it’s in the middle of the night, 30 below zero and no oxygen.”

“Mentally you want to stop because every step feels like 1,000 steps. You begin feeling your body shut down because of weather conditions and altitude. [When] I had frost bite in my arm for over two hours, I actually summited with one pole because I couldn’t grip my pole with my other hand. Close to the summit, it went from physical to just mental for me because my body had given up. My water and food actually froze and I couldn’t even pull my pants down to go to the bathroom. As I reached the summit, the sun began to rise from UNDER me. I could see the beautiful glaciers below and God’s beautiful sky at my eye level.”

Though the lack of oxygen at 19,336 feet was clouding some of her thoughts, Lindsay clearly remembered her purpose of climbing as she took in the glory of the summit.

“It was there when I thought about a woman, a girl alone in a room being violated over and over with no hope. This gave me a perspective of my own suffering I endured compared to what one being trafficked goes through everyday. I was getting off the mountain – but many women are stuck on theirs hoping someone will come save them.”

Through this experience, Lindsay has learned about her own physical abilities, but more importantly, she has learned about the need to help those trapped in human trafficking or who are vulnerable to becoming entangled in modern day slavery.  She’s made it a mission to share her knowledge with others, in the hope that more people will become aware about these issues. Women today have so much power to raise their voice and help end human trafficking.

“Women need to know that we need their help. This is something too big for anyone to take on. We can’t do everything but we must do something. Many women don’t even realize that it’s happening right in our backyards. Miami is one of the top huddles for human trafficking. This is not an economical or poverty issue, this is a crime that robs people from their inner core and being. People become a commodity – sold over and over. These individuals that are being trafficked are someone’s mom, sister, best friend, cousin and child. We have to make it personal because when it becomes personal then we take charge and fight back. We need to fight back against this and we need women to be soldiers in battle.”

What are a few ways to get involved?

“Women who want to get involved can join in the efforts of the Freedom Climb www.thefreedomclimb.net or contact their local Human Trafficking Office and get plugged in where you can donate, help raise funds, mentor women who have been rescued, or even just tell one person these staggering statistics. We can’t look at a number like 30 million and comprehend how one person could make a difference, but one person can be the change and voice to the voiceless.”

Interested in participating on a climb? Sign up to join the 2016 Freedom Climb in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The conference and climb begins July 31, 2016. There will be “day hike activities Aug 2-4 and for those wanting more, the overnight backpacking option is available Aug 5-7th (depart August 8th)” for more information contact Tina Yeager at Tina.Yeager@om.org.

By Michaela Garretson

Photography by Alex Arpag and Tess Sangree

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