Photo courtesy of Serendipit Consulting

By Connor Dziawura | March 29, 2021

Nearly 40 million estimated global victims. Considered the world’s third-largest criminal activity. But only 1 out of every 100 victims will be rescued.

These statistics from the Dream City Foundation show the scale at which human trafficking operates and the challenges of cracking down on it.

To generate awareness of the issue and raise funds for rescue and rehabilitation programs, the local nonprofit will host its second annual Stop Traffic Walk from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, April 10, at Dream City Church Phoenix. The foundation supports the Phoenix Dream Center, StreetLightUSA and Colorado City Dream Center, prominent organizations in the fight against human trafficking.

“Our Dream Center here and StreetLightUSA, and now Colorado City, those three campuses make us the largest human trafficking rescue and rehabilitation program in the nation — and just beds away from being the No. 1 in the world,” explains Kristie Barnett Sexton, chairperson of the Stop Traffic Walk.

“When we were calculating all this and realizing the impact that we were having nationwide with human trafficking, we realized that we wanted to do more to raise awareness about trafficking, because the reality is that everybody cares about trafficking but a lot of times people don’t know what to do with it. They don’t understand it.”

The issue of trafficking is not a partisan one; rather, it’s a human issue, Sexton explains. Therefore, everyone is invited — adults and children. Standard registration is free, while full registration — including a T-shirt, lighted wristband and meal ticket — costs $99, signifying the statistic that 99 out of 100 trafficking victims go unrescued.

“For the first couple of hours, it’s the time for the community to come together and just enjoy themselves,” Sexton says, detailing the inclusion of food trucks, bouncy houses, face painting, rock climbing walls and music.

“And we know that it’s a heavy topic, so we’re not making light of it,” she clarifies. “After the food and the festivities are over, we come together and we have a ceremony and we talk about human trafficking and we talk about that our organization has a 97% success rate, that if an individual goes through our program, they will come out living a thriving, productive life in the community.”

A survivor, dubbed a hero, is also honored each year, and the walk itself culminates in a dance party to celebrate “that some of these survivors today have come out of slavery into freedom,” Sexton says.

First held in January 2020 in conjunction with National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, last year’s efforts were a success, garnering a strong showing of close to 4,000 attendees and over $250,000 raised, Sexton says. Shortly after, however, COVID-19 and the resulting shutdowns hit, and this year the walk had to be pushed back.

“Due to COVID now again this year, we’re hoping that we have the same success or better, but it’s kind of unknown this year,” Sexton admts.

The idea when launching the Stop Traffic Walk, Sexton says, was ultimately to create a community event that could go nationwide, one where people far and wide could take a day to walk for the same cause.

This year the hope is to add 30 more beds to take care of people, as the reality is that some have to be turned away from programs daily because of limited space. And if 10,000 people were to pay the full-registration fee, the foundation would roughly meet its $1 million goal to increase facilities for trafficking survivors.

“We’re doing the walk in hopes that people won’t just come out for the awareness part, but they’ll get behind raising funds,” Sexton says.

The fight against human trafficking goes beyond just the walk, though. Sexton notes that the foundation hopes to create awareness through conversation — with institutions, parents and kids alike. With COVID-19 confining people to their homes, in turn leading to more time spent online, Sexton says the “alert system for trafficking” has been heightened.

“Well, the traffickers are online, and this is the No. 1 way that they find children, is through the internet,” Sexton cautions, adding that she recently discussed educating parents with Banner Thunderbird staff.

“It’s not just about raising the funds. It’s about getting the word out — like we need to know what your kids are looking at, what they’re listening to, how much time they’re on the internet — because if a trafficker can see a kid with low self-worth and low self-esteem or (whose) isolated, they can come in and manipulate and start to groom these kids.”

Sexton says perception toward human trafficking is changing. Whereas in the past people assumed it was something that could happen in foreign countries or in areas with poverty and crime, people are now realizing that’s not the case. In reality, Sexton says, it’s happening as close as Scottsdale and Desert Ridge.

“On my social media pages, I encourage people to share, to get the word out. If you see something, say something. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right,” Sexton says. “And I think that because the media has kind of turned a blind eye to it, I feel like we’ve taken on that role as parents to be vocal about it. And, I’m seeing more and more people talk to their children.”

Though it’s a lofty idea, Sexton feels human trafficking can be curbed.

“This isn’t going away without a fight, and it’s not going to be something that’s going to be easy to tackle whatsoever,” Sexton says. “But I do believe that the more that we are talking about it and the more that we are aware of it and the more that we are watching what our kids are doing … and I think the more that we tell the parents and educate them, they will be alert.”

Stop Traffic Walk

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, April 10

Where: Dream City Church Phoenix, 13613 N. Cave Creek Road

Cost: Registration is free; full registration is $99 and includes a T-shirt, lighted wristband and meal ticket