The annual international Walk for Freedom will take place in four South Carolina cities. (Photo courtesy of Upstate Walk for Freedom)
Four South Carolina cities, along with 500 others across the globe, are hosting walks to support human trafficking victims.
Sponsored by the A21 Campaign international human trafficking nonprofit, “Walk for Freedom,” has taken place each year on Oct. 15 since 2014. Volunteer groups in Greenville, Columbia, Rock Hill and Anderson are getting involved to advocate for a solution to trafficking in South Carolina.
Tory Nicolay is the operations director for Jasmine Road in Greenville, South Carolina’s first two-year residential program for adult women survivors of human trafficking, prostitution and addiction.
Nicolay’s organization is an official co-host of the walk and thinks awareness is more important now than it’s ever been.
“Human trafficking is one of the most unreported crimes,” Nicolay said. “It’s not necessarily a crime of movement. … It is something that can happen to anybody.”
According to A21, one out of every 200 people are trafficked and one of four victims are children. The S.C. Human Trafficking Taskforce reported 236 identified victims in 2021. It uses the word “identified” as many trafficking situations remain unreported.
Since 2018, there’s been more than 280 applications for Jasmine Road’s services.
Nicolay said that doesn’t even scratch the surface, because there are victims who don’t know there are means of getting help.
“That doesn’t include hundreds and hundreds of other women, men and children who are experiencing trafficking, and they’re right here in our city,” Nicolay said.
Domestic abuse, neglect and trafficking crimes tend to intersect, according to the S.C. Human Trafficking Taskforce.
The government initiative said it wasn’t able to record every victim due to staffing shortages. But its team of law enforcement officers is confident human trafficking increased significantly along with other abuse situations in recent years.
“The problem is big and rampant,” said Dylan Gunnels, a co-host of the Columbia walk. “Just like everything else in our society, (human trafficking) has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Gunnels had never heard of human trafficking until A21’s founder, Christine Caine, spoke at his college about why she got involved in the fight against the crime.
“It all felt extremely overwhelming and very sad — very heartbreaking that this is reality,” Gunnels said. “That human beings’ lives were literally being trafficked for money and financial gain.”
In 2021, he organized Columbia’s first Walk for Freedom.
He wasn’t expecting the event to be big since it was the first year, thinking that even if only 10 people showed up, at least he had tried. But that morning, more and more people registered, and around 50 people from across the state attended.
The group is anticipating more walkers this year because it has begun reaching out across the Midlands for more volunteers and speakers.
“You’re here in Columbia, South Carolina, and you might not have a clue how they’re helping people who are being trafficked in Croatia right now,” Gunnels said. “You’re not boots on the ground. You’re not a caseworker. … But one way you can get involved is to participate in this walk, and the bigger that is, … the more people start to talk.”
Diana Kindley is co-chair of the Upstate Regional Human Trafficking Task Force and co-hosts the Upstate Walk for Freedom in Greenville.
She had never heard of A21 until she saw a Walk for Freedom event in San Diego, California.
She was on a bus, touring the city, when the vehicle suddenly stopped and passengers started looking out the window to see what the holdup was. She saw hundreds of people, all in black clothing, walking across the intersection.
“The cool thing is that everybody on the bus started talking about it,” Kindley said. “And then, the conversation of human trafficking came up.”
A couple years later, she started building a team of volunteers.
In 2021, more than 200 people participated, gaining local news attention and a larger network of volunteers.
“It was so much work, but it was so rewarding and so beautiful,” Kindley said. “We thought, ‘We’ll do it every year from now on as long as we can.’”
This year, the Greenville group has made limited edition T-shirts to sell. All proceeds will go to local organizations across the state that provide services to victims.
Before walking, participants have a chance to learn about the crime — how to identify a victim, who to call and what local services they need.
“I think it’s important for people to get involved so that they can learn and teach others,” Kindley said. “I can’t stress (awareness) enough.”
To learn more and participate in the walk, register on A21’s website.
This will be Columbia’s second year participating in the nonprofit walk. (Photo courtesy of Midlands Walk for Freedom)
Last year’s walk in Columbia (Photo courtesy of Midlands Walk for Freedom)
Participants in Columbia will start at the county courthouse at 10 a.m. and will walk to the Statehouse. (Flyer courtesy of Midlands Walk for Freedom)