Standing on a football field, surrounded by people. It’s early in the morning. Some are stretching, some are chatting with friends. It seems as if chaos surrounds you. High-energy music is blaring. People are pinning numbers to their T-shirts. Volunteers are scrambling, organizing parking and gathering people to the same vicinity. All are here for the same cause: to end sex trafficking.
The annual Run for Their Lives (R4TL) race began in 2009, and has grown from 800 racers to more than 1,700 participants in three years. During the first race, participants gathered in Lynchburg, Va., and now there are 14 races held nationally and in Canada, all on the same day. This year’s race falls on Oct. 29. R4TL partners with a local organization called Freedom 4/24 to end sex trafficking in Thailand, but this year, two other organizations are receiving proceeds from the race. Now with other organizations included, funds will go to Kenya, Nicaragua, Guatemala and India.
“The race provides people with a practical way of raising awareness of the issue within their communities, while also raising money to support the work of organizations that are working with these women and children,” says Freedom 4/24 Founder Christine Gelatt.
The registration fee for R4TL is $24, which is the standard price of a prostitute in Thailand for the day, according to Gelatt. With the money raised, Freedom 4/24 aims to buy the prostitute for a day and give her a warm bed to sleep in or a warm meal, says race coordinator and Freedom 4/24 President Mike Zealand. Overall, Zealand says, the mission is to show the girls the love of Christ as well as a way out of prostitution.
With the new countries receiving profits from the race, there are different missions for those instead of only human trafficking, according to Zealand. For example, the Olooloitikoshi Project in Kenya will use the proceeds to build a new dorm in their rescue center.
Before the race begins, volunteers write a name on runners’ arms or legs for which he or she is running. In the past, racers have received names from Thailand, but this year there will be five different countries represented.
This year, R4TL Zealand has a goal of 2,500 racers. With the expansion of more races across the country, other small changes are occurring at the Lynchburg race. While there has always been a 5k, 10k and children’s race, a coloring book will be made so children can understand the cause on a deeper level than running the youth race alone.
“Freedom starts with a day,” Zealand says, and bringing awareness on a children’s level is one way to educate others according to Freedom 4/24.
Students are typically a large number of the racers involved, with Liberty University advertising the race for weeks in advance. Graduate student Tabitha Hibbard signed up over a month in advance, with several friends from Liberty University joining her in the 5k.
“Run for their Lives is a great way to spread the news about human trafficking and get people who wouldn’t normally give a more tangible way to give to great organizations through their registration fees,” Hibbard says. “I have friends who are missionaries in Thailand and shared about the challenges of spreading the Gospel, including the large number of women who are sold into or sell themselves into slavery because of poverty.”
Liberty University financial aid advisor Allison Connors got involved in R4TL two years ago, and while she runs many races in Virginia, she says R4TL was her first and her favorite.
“I have a passion for Freedom 4/24 and giving refuge to these women and girls who were plucked from their families, sometimes even sold by their families into these awful conditions,” Connors says. “I believe that no woman should be treated that way and believe that running three miles is the least we can do to try to help them.”
Corporate sponsors set up tents with food, jewelry and T-shirts after the race for an open-market feel for the racers and their families to learn about other organizations that need help. All racers get a specially designed Freedom 4/24 shirt.
Before the race begins, Zealand will say a few words to remind everyone what the race is for, and last year Brentwood Church worship leaders played a song specifically written for the race called “Beautiful Child.”
When the race began in 2009, “we were looking for an event to bring awareness to sex trafficking and the severity of it,” Zealand says. Starting with Lynchburg’s Brentwood Church, the idea formed from there and decided to join with Freedom 4/24.
“The original intention for [R4TL] was to perhaps take on different organizations each year that were focused on other areas of the world, but it ended up being such a good partnership that we decided to merge the two officially,” Gelatt says. “The race serves as a great way to further the mission and impact of [Freedom 4/24].”