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Riders in the Pedal the Pacific group met with Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley and her senior staff on Tuesday, as well as key members of the county’s human trafficking task force and other civic leaders. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Cyclists with Pedal the Pacific want people to know about sex trafficking in America.

The 11 young women — traveling 1,700 miles from Seattle to San Diego over a period of about six weeks — want people they encounter along the way to ask them why they’re biking, to become curious why the group of college students and recent graduates is making the difficult journey, far from home and down the Pacific coast.

Most of all, they want people to take action.

The ride is a fundraiser for The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking outside Austin, Texas. The ranch will provide long-term care to child survivors of sex trafficking, and will open in August to house victims between the ages of 11 and 17 who have been rescued from the brutal and heartbreaking practice.

According to the International Labour Organization, children account for one in four victims of modern slavery, and an estimated 20 million individuals are victims of human trafficking globally. Sexual exploitation is cited as the most common reason, ahead of forced labor.

Pedal the Pacific was the brainchild of three then-college seniors: Sara Belmer of the University of Arkansas and Savannah Lovelace and Grace Pfeffer of the University of Texas at Austin.

None of the three had any cycling experience, jokingly describing themselves as “hilariously unathletic girls.”

“The goal is the raise awareness about sex trafficking, and it’s happening in every city — no city is excluded,” Lovelace told Noozhawk. “The girls engage in conversations with people at gas stations and grocery stores. We hope people will go home, find statistics and organizations fighting against the cause.”

Lovelace said when the co-founding members of Pedal the Pacific started the ride in 2017, it was meant to be a one-time experience.

The trio gained social media followers during their journey last summer and documented moments of their travel experience on their website and blog.

Last year, they raised more than $60,000, tripling their goal, for The Refuge facility. And they decided to do it again, with a larger team.

Lovelace said Pedal the Pacific received 83 applicants hoping to participate in the 2018 bike ride.

Eleven women ranging from ages 18 to 22 were selected after interviews and committing to riding over 1,000 miles.

The group began the bike trip mostly as complete strangers, but friendships began to soar through the members’ passion of fighting child sex trafficking and using their voice to be part of the change.

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The Pedal the Pacific squad listens intently as a teammate addresses Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting during their stop in town. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“The thing that unites them is the cause,” said Lovelace, development coordinator at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Austin, Texas.

“Everyone is committed to learning the new sport. That level of commitment makes people intrigued and people want to know why they are learning how to tour on a bike.”

The group ride ends in San Diego next week, and the co-founders set a goal of raising $250,000 for The Refuge.

“All of the money is going into the walls,” Pfeffer said of The Refuge, where she now works as public relations and communications manager. “The money that we are raising is going into building the facility, getting it started and ready for the girls living there.”

The ride itself is challenging, team member Madi Warner said, but worth the aches and pains.

“We think that we can’t go any more miles on our bikes, but the people we are doing this for are in much more discomfort,” she said.

Warner, a native of Fairhope, Ala., and an incoming freshman at the University of Alabama, said she became aware of overseas human trafficking issues through a guest speaker at her church a few years ago.

She’d been stunned to learn it was an issue that exists in the United States, and discovered the first-annual Pedal the Pacific charity bike ride on Instagram.

“Three people can make such big waves for this movement,” Warner said of the co-founders.

Warner and the team rode through Santa Barbara County this week on their way south. They stopped overnight in Lompoc, where the United Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara County hosted the team, and then the cyclists traveled to Santa Barbara.

In Santa Barbara, the 2018 Pedal the Pacific team, along with Lovelace and Pfeffer, met with elected officials, civic leaders, law enforcement professionals and service organizations on the forefront of the fight against human trafficking.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley hosted a meet-and-greet and human trafficking forum with the cyclists at her office across from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

In attendance were a number of officials, staff and individuals who are involved with the county’s Human Trafficking Task Force, including Megan Rheinschild, director of the Victim-Witness Assistance Program in the District Attorney’s Office; Chief Deputy District Attorneys Cynthia Gresser, Mag Nicola and John Savrnoch; and two Santa Barbara police captains.

Also participating were Kielle Horton, board president of the Junior League of Santa Barbara, which has been a driving force behind the new S.A.F.E. House, a six-bed therapeutic rehabilitative shelter for young sex trafficking survivors in Santa Barbara; Gregg Hart, a Santa Barbara city councilman and newly elected Santa Barbara County supervisor; Rolf Geyling, president of the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission; and Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen, a longtime supporter of Pedal the Pacific.

“Unlike other crime victims … human trafficking victims don’t feel like victims,” Dudley told the attendees. “Many of them think their life is just fine … because they got used to some terribly distorted version of what life is.”

Each Pedal the Pacific member shared her passion for the fight against sex trafficking.

Lexie France, a Fayetteville, Ark., native who is studying kinesiology at the University of Arkansas, shared how she got involved in the Pedal the Pacific ride.

“Whenever someone gets rescued from sex trafficking, it’s only the beginning because they have so much taken from them,” she said. “There’s a whole new battlefield once they have been physically taken away from a trafficker.

“That’s what made me want to fight for it.”

Pedal the Pacific wasted no time in raising the public’s awareness and engaging the Santa Barbara community.

At Hart’s invitation, the team spoke at Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting during public comment, and was invited to breakfast at the Santa Barbara Club, where they were promptly asked to address the Rotary Club of Santa Barbara Sunrise. The Rotarians passed a rider’s Pedal the Pacific hat around the room and quickly collected nearly $600 in donations for their cause.

In addition to France and Warner, the cycling team includes Harli Bruno, Mattie Carranza, Kelly Coles, Audrey Fleenor, Isabel Mayne, Savannah Nauewelaers, Emma Orlando Lizzie Sammons and Gabi Siewczynski. All are students or recent graduates of the Universities of Alabama, Arkansas and Texas, as well as Oklahoma State University.

The group rode their bikes 40-50 miles each day in teams of three, with two riders trailing in a Ford pickup truck. They mostly camped their way through Washington, Oregon and Northern California, but were often hosted overnight once they hit San Francisco.

In Santa Barbara, the team was scattered among seven host families, including Dudley’s. Hazard’s Cyclesport kept the team’s bikes, with owner Bruce Davis and his staff providing tuneups during their two-night stay in town.

The squad was hosted at Goa Taco for one dinner, and a picnic was held for the team and its hosts at Impact HUB with catering provided by Los Arroyos around the corner.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.