What were you doing when you were 12 years old? That is the average age of children preyed upon for forced labor and sex trafficking. Every 30 seconds, someone becomes a victim of human trafficking, the world’s fastest-growing criminal industry — a $150 billion business. 

While on a mission trip in Honduras, Marathon resident Sheila Cook met a girl who was trafficked at 5 years old and rescued. (Only about 1 percent are ever rescued.) “I want to open people’s eyes to the seriousness of slavery and human trafficking,” said Cook. “It’s not just other countries dealing with this, it’s in our own town.”

To raise awareness, Cook helped coordinate the Florida Keys to take part in the National Walk For Freedom Day on Saturday, Oct. 20. “It is very serious,” she said. The walkers are encouraged to wear black and will walk from Marathon’s city hall a mile down the road and back. “We will be walking in a single-file line and no one will be talking.”

The walk has been happening for 10 years through the nonprofit organization A21, but it will be the first walk happening in the Florida Keys. Walkers are encouraged to raise at least $100, which is used to help A21 (known as 21st Century Abolitionists) combat the crime, as well as raise awareness about the signs of human trafficking. 

“My hope is to educate people about this and educate local community members to look out for signs,” she said. “We need to know how to spot this and protect our children.”

Before and after the walk, two women will share their stories of being trafficked. After a conference in Miami, Marathon resident Cheryl Roll’s eyes were opened while walking through shipping containers used to transport people. “Standing in the small spot just big enough for a child to stand in that container really makes you think,” she said. “Human trafficking doesn’t look like what we expect it to look like.”

Red flags include things like skipping school, expensive gifts from boyfriend or girlfriend, overly jealous boyfriend or girlfriend who could be controlling, significantly older, and makes promises too good to be true, who is vague about his or her job, and more. “If you see something, say something,” said Roll, who had the national hotline number memorized 888-373-7888. A victim can also text “help” to BEFREE (233733). 

“The manipulation of how some of the children are pulled into this is scary. It’s well thought-out and well organized,” she said, while recalling a documentary she watched about victims. “They are scared to death, and they are naïve. I know it could have been me, you, any of us, at some point.”

The Walk for Freedom registration opens at 7 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Marathon City Hall. To preregister, visit a21.org. The program starts at 8 a.m. with the speakers and includes a question-and-answer time period. After the walk, there will be another speaker about noticing red flags and how they help victims. There will also be a silent auction, which will close at 10:50 a.m. For more information, email [email protected]. 

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