In 2008, I took my first trip to India. I had always wanted to travel to that part of the world and I was excited to be a tourist in a land full of incredible history, food, culture and contrast. While I was there, I met an Indian man in Mumbai who had spent the last 20 years working on the streets of Kamathipura—said to be one of the largest red light districts in the world—rescuing women and children from sexual exploitation and human trafficking. I knew nothing about human trafficking, and as I heard stories about the young children that were being bought and sold for sex I knew my world would never be the same. When he invited me to see the work first-hand, I said yes, then braced myself for something that I knew would shake me to the core.
He picked me up late in the evening to take me to Kamathipura during peak business hours. As we approached the red light district, I was struck by the number of taxis, piled full of young ladies, leaving the area. They were being taken to hotels around the city. When we reached the heart of the district, it was almost more than I could bear. Women lined the street in all directions as men seemed to move like water through every alley, lane, and passageway. They made their selection and vanished into the night. Lifeless eyes peered out from behind bars in second and third story windows. I was surrounded by human suffering and I struggled to know how to respond. I wanted to do something, but had no idea what I could do.
The next morning, we went to see the other side of the story—the “Homes of Hope” where young rescued boys and girls are cared for. What I encountered when I walked through the doors of those safe houses was beyond anything I dreamed possible. Children who had once experienced horrors beyond imagination, were now living vibrant and beautiful lives. They were full of hope, energy and optimism. They wanted to become teachers, lawyers, accountants, artists and doctors. They wanted to change the world.
I left India determined to do something to help the children that I had met. They had big dreams and I wanted to be a part of making those dreams come true.
Later that summer, I was gearing up to climb Mount Rainier (the tallest mountain in Washington) with a several friends. We didn’t have any particularly noble objectives --just a normal trip with a group of buddies-- until I had the last minute idea to turn our climb into a fundraiser to fight sex trafficking. Two weeks before our departure, I pitched it to the group, and they were all in! We called it Climb for Captives.
Our goal was to raise $14,410 – one dollar for every vertical foot of the mountain – and we only had 14 days to pull it off before the climb. Much to our surprise, we raised over $20,000. Our community responded in a way that none of us expected. Word began to spread and people from around the country started emailing us to learn more about human trafficking and the cause. The next summer we decided to do it again with a few more friends, and Climb for Captives took on a life of its own.
“Be who you are and fight what you hate”
Our little grassroots campaign that started with a last minute idea has now raised over $250,000 to provide safe housing and scholarships for young girls and boys rescued from human trafficking. The climb also
prompted us to think about other ways to leverage our passions and skills to combat human trafficking. I started serving on the Board of an anti-trafficking organization and several of the other climbers began volunteering as well.
Eventually that involvement led me to accept a position as President of Rescue:Freedom International, an organization that works around the world to empower the rescue and restoration of those suffering in sexual slavery. The Climb for Captives story continues on and others are joining the movement. We believe that anyone can do what we have done -- anyone can use their passions and skills to fight injustice. It doesn’t have to be climbing. It can be walking, running, dancing, singing… the sky’s the limit. We have had people “cycle for captives”, host dinner parties for freedom, and even grow beards for the cause; one supporter created a “save it, or shave it” contest with his wife and whoever raised the most money got to determine the fate of the beard.
The moral of the story: be who you are and fight what you hate! Start with the things you love to do, the passions and talents that make you come alive, and use them to help those in need.
Jeremy Vallerand is President of Rescue:Freedom International, an organization that works around the world to empower the rescue and restoration of those in suffering sexual slavery. He is also the co-founder of Climb for Captives, an initiative that leverages mountain climbing and outdoor adventure to combat slavery. Jeremy has a graduate degree in Diplomacy from Oxford University and lives in Seattle, WA with his wife and two kids.