Austin locals Savannah Lovelace and Grace Pfeffer, co-founders of Pedal the Pacific, are using bikes to help fight sex trafficking
by Abby Moore
Grace Pfeffer recalls a specific meeting when her boss, Steven Phenix, asked which of her coworkers would volunteer to share their most recent sexual experience. This was not a case of sexual harassment. It was a sobering reminder of the reason sex and human trafficking is an underreported crime.
“No one wants to do that,” Pfeffer says, “especially if you’re twelve-years-old, you’ve been abused for years and you don’t really understand what happened to you.” Oftentimes, when victims of sex trafficking escape, they are still ashamed of their experience or unable to process the trauma, Pfeffer explains.
Pfeffer works at The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking), a long-term, holistic healing center for girls, aged 11 to 19, who have survived sex trafficking. The ranch, just outside of Austin, opened in August 2018 and is currently the largest, long-term rehabilitation home for survivors of DMST in the United States.
Texas only has 72 long-term beds for survivors, compared to its 79,000 minor and youth victims, a number released by the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at The University of Texas at Austin. The IDVSA deep-dove into those numbers and released them two years ago when Pfeffer began her internship at The Refuge, and when friends, Savannah Lovelace and Sara Belmer, decided to do something radical.
“When I found out that trafficking happens here,” Lovelace says, “I thought ‘why is nobody talking about this?’ So we decided to do something crazy to start the conversation.”
They, along with Pfeffer, founded Pedal the Pacific, a 1,700-mile bike ride from Seattle to San Diego. The mission was to educate people on the issue of sex trafficking and to raise money for The Refuge.
“The Refuge was just starting construction,” Pfeffer says, “They hadn’t even broken ground yet, so we saw an opportunity for our money to go a long way.”
They set a goal of raising $20,000 and were eager to see that money go into building the walls, buying the 48 beds and ultimately creating a safe home for young girls who would otherwise not have one.
Two years later, they have raised over $200,000 for The Refuge, which currently houses 13 girls, and the impact would not have been possible without their bikes.
“Even if people know a little bit about sex trafficking, it can be an awkward thing to bring up,” Pfeffer says. “Having something absurd, like our bikes, allowed people to casually or unknowingly get into the conversation, and then they could ask questions at their own pace.”
The “hilariously un-athletic” women spent six weeks, a total of 45 days, biking along the Pacific Coast in 2017 and were met with the curiosity they hoped for and a generosity they never anticipated.
Originally, they only expected friends and family to ask questions. “These people who knew us, and knew we weren’t cyclists,” Pfeffer says, “that’s whose attention we expected to receive.” But their courageous trek and social media presence prompted interviews from news outlets along the Coast and inspired others groups of riders to follow in their footsteps.
“Halfway through the ride, we got an email from a stranger,” Lovelace remembers, “who said she was inspired and interested and then asked if we had plans of continuing next year.” Pfeffer adds, “that was the first clue that this thing we were doing was much bigger than the three of us.”
Pedal the Pacific released an interest form when they returned home, and 83 people filled it out. Girls, boys, high schoolers, college students and people up to fifty-years-old applied. After defining their criteria, an official application was released, and the co-founders narrowed the list down to 11 women.
“We barely knew how to send ourselves down the Coast, so navigating 11 was a huge learning curve,” Pfeffer says. “But those women were amazing and ended up raising over $150,000 for The Refuge.”
This year, Pedal the Pacific is sending 10 women on the journey with a goal of raising $250,000. The college-aged women attend universities in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and here at UT Austin. Each one is responsible for hosting a fundraiser in their city. “The purpose is to mobilize people to get involved in the fight, no matter where they live,” Pfeffer says.
Eventually, Pedal the Pacific will serve as an educational space where people can learn how to make a difference beyond the bike. “We’ve all been in a position where we learn about a large-scale issue but feel too overwhelmed to get involved,” Pfeffer says,” we want to provide information and resources to eliminate that feeling.” But for now, they ride.