Breanna Rutledge stood barefoot in downtown Anchorage on Saturday afternoon, joining her husband, young daughter and roughly 300 others who walked a mile around the city to raise awareness about human trafficking.
For 25-year-old Rutledge, the walk was personal. Rutledge said she was kidnapped as a toddler in Kansas and sexually exploited for three years, until she was rescued by law enforcement at age 6. She said Saturday's walk gave her hope.
"It just shows me that it can be done, that our task to end trafficking here in Alaska isn't too large," Rutledge said in an interview Saturday after she and two other survivors of human trafficking had addressed the crowd in Town Square Park.
Cities across the countries have held similar 1-mile walks, called "The Barefoot Mile," to raise awareness about human trafficking and to walk in solidarity with impoverished children who are most vulnerable to trafficking, according to Jeff Brodsky, the Colorado-based founder of Joy International and The Barefoot Mile. He attended Saturday's walk.
Brodsky said he has gone without shoes for about seven years, since he went to a garbage dump in Cambodia to feed the children who gathered there and he noticed all of the children were barefoot.
"I decided that I would go barefoot for a year in solidarity with impoverished and trafficked children," he said in an interview. One year has become many more.
Gwen Adams, executive director of Priceless Alaska, an anti-sex-trafficking organization based in Anchorage, said it was important to make more Alaskans aware of human trafficking in the state.
"Community involvement is the most important thing we need to fight this crime," she said. "It's a misconception in Alaska that this happens overseas and not here, but it is one of the fastest-growing crimes in Alaska right now."
According to recent research, one in four girls and one in five boys receiving services from Anchorage's shelter for homeless youths reported being victims of sex trafficking.
U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as well as Alaska first lady Donna Walker and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, spoke before the walk Saturday, underscoring the importance of joining together to put an end to human trafficking.
"This is not exploitation and an evil, insidious, horrible, horrible crime that is happening in faraway places," Murkowski told the crowd. "This is here in our town. This is here in our state."
The walk raised about $200,000, Adams said, half going to Joy International, an organization that says it fights human trafficking globally, and the other half split between Priceless Alaska and two nonprofits that serve homeless youths, Covenant House in Anchorage and MyHouse in Wasilla.