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ZOE International: A Mission to Share the Gospel and Help End Child Trafficking

December 22, 2021

This year, ZOE International celebrates 20 years of reaching those who have not yet heard about Jesus and rescuing children from the horrors of human trafficking. ZOE is named after the Greek word for LIFE in the Bible. Jesus said, ‘I came that they may have LIFE (ZOE) and have it abundantly.’ ZOE Founders Michael and Carol Hart unapologetically lead with their faith in God as the only Source who can truly change lives for the better.

“It is shocking in our modern world that 3.3 billion people have never heard about Jesus or what He came to earth to do for them,” said Michael Hart, ZOE Founder, and CEO. “Even though we have radios, television, and the internet, many don’t know that God created them and loves them. We as Christians must do something about that.”

When Michael and Carol Hart founded ZOE International in 2002, they were excited to start in a foreign country where the population was less than 1% Christian, and the gospel was needed. “We think it is unfair that some have heard about Jesus multiple times and others have never heard about Him,” said Michael. “We aim for the rest of our lives to make that right by leading every day in the Great Commission. Until every person is reached with the gospel, we aren’t done. Until every child is rescued, we aren’t done. We accomplish this by training and empowering leaders in their nation. They know the language and the culture and are much better than us at reaching their people.”

ZOE has also never been ‘headline-driven; they began their work 20 years ago when human trafficking was not yet on the global stage, and very little could be found on the subject. ZOE Founder and President Carol Hart added, “Many people feel overwhelmed by the enormity and darkness of child trafficking. It is difficult to believe that the buying, selling, and trading of children exists, but it does. We have the power to do something about it! God’s love for people motivates our global first responders, advocates, restoration and prevention teams, our generous donors, and all who work with us each day to keep fighting for freedom and every child touched by this evil.

In the beginning, the reasons not to do this work were overwhelming, but our hearts were in total agreement when God clearly spoke to us, ‘I hear their cries, and I need your life….’ So we set up ZOE International, our 501(c)(3) in Santa Clarita, California, sold what we had, and moved to Thailand, where we didn’t know one person. It was scary because we were unqualified. We had no experience doing this type of work. Our personal money would someday run dry, and we only had a handful of donors. We needed to provide for 47 children at risk for trafficking from day one. In part, we also knew that the buyers and sellers of children were fueled by criminals and sometimes very powerful people. We had no protection, nothing that could help us in their country. But we had God, and we were sure He was leading us, and we were following the vision He put in our hearts. 

GOD taught us how to navigate successfully in a foreign land all these years. It was He who removed the ‘impossible’ that always seemed to be in our way. We know God speaks to people to send the finances needed. We never had to stop moving forward and taking ground. It was He who provided our daily protection. We had front row seats to watch the gentle way God would open the hearts to generations of lost souls and heal the broken hearts of children from trauma.

For ZOE to succeed in this work, it takes that ‘1 in a million’ employee/volunteer who can truly love the people we serve. We have the privilege to serve alongside the most devoted-selfless-brilliant individuals.

Because of our desperate need for God’s involvement every day, we are firsthand witnesses and Master Historians of His faithfulness. There would be no success, no ZOE if God were not real,” said Carol.

From the beginning, God’s favor has been on ZOE with numerous miraculous stories of rescue and restoration, unsolicited generosity, important partnerships with local and federal governments, and law enforcement. People of all ages are coming to Christ in seemingly some of the most challenging and far-flung places.

“It takes an army of dedicated people to sacrifice and give to support our work,” said Michael. “Our donors are just as important as our front-line workers. That front-line worker will never scoop a child up in their arms without the donor behind them or share the gospel in hostile areas without our donors right beside them. We are in the places we are in and doing the work we are doing thanks to our beloved donors.”

Although human trafficking is thought to be more active in other countries, ZOE knows the desperate need to work right here at home in America due to the fast-growing domestic child trafficking crisis. “Children and families here and worldwide are manipulated, lied to, coerced, and forced into seemingly hopeless situations by traffickers. Their main targets have been the poor, unprotected, uncared for orphans/foster children. Today, children from ‘wealthy – normal’ families are equally at risk. Traffickers don’t discriminate. Their prey is as young as infants. They are greedy opportunists. If we don’t push back, the trafficker’s reach will continue to grow. 

We were influenced and raised to fight for fairness and freedom in our beloved America. But it is because we are believers in Jesus Christ that gives us the courage and the drive to do the right thing. Human Trafficking is the 21st Century’s Human Rights issue globally. After 20 years of looking for long-term solutions to end child trafficking, we have a path to freedom, but we need the local Church,” said Carol. “We believe that the Body of Christ carries the answer inside of each of us for every crisis on earth.”

As ZOE celebrates its 20th anniversary, ZOE International is looking ahead to reach the masses and share the gospel through media and technology. “Yes, the solution is audaciously huge,” said Michael. “Some people comment that it is ridiculous to say that the gospel is the answer to stopping human trafficking. From our experience, we know when it is narrowed down to the hurting person in front of us – they need to know Jesus.”

ZOE operates in the United States, Thailand, Australia, Japan, and Mexico and employs over 190 people globally. 

In Mexico, extreme poverty fuels human trafficking

November 23, 2021
In Mexico, extreme poverty fuels human trafficking.
The ZOE Mexico team partners with local churches and NGOs in Oaxaca to help educate citizens about the atrocities of human trafficking.

Thirteen-year-old Juana* was not in school when a ZOE Mexico church partner first met her.

 

“One day, the church went into the neighborhood to look for children who need an education and resources,” said Mariela Ambrosio, ZOE Mexico Director.

 

They met Juana and learned that she didn’t know how to read or write, and her mother works in the sex industry. Her older sister was following in her mother’s footsteps. The ZOE Mexico team quickly rallied to find a scholarship for her to attend the church’s K-12 E-Kids school. Juana has attended this school for the past five years, learning to read, and recently graduated from primary school.

 

“Juana is now 18-years old and has three more years before she will graduate from high school,” said Mariela. “She is now working towards getting a job while finishing her high school degree.”

 

God sent His son, Jesus, to carry out a plan to end all suffering and bring hope to a fallen world. At Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s entrance into the world. Would you prayerfully consider joining us to offer hope to those affected by human trafficking by donating to ZOE’s global mission?

With you, our prayer partners, and donors, we can continue this life-saving fight to prevent and end child trafficking and educate and empower more youth like Juana in Mexico.

Your contribution will help bring hope into the darkest of places! Merry Christmas!

*Some information changed to align with our child protective policies

ZOE Advocacy Graduations

November 12, 2021

In 2019, ZOE was awarded a contract with Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services to provide advocacy services for children who are victims of sex trafficking or highly at risk of becoming victims.

When law enforcement recovers a child from sex trafficking in the North LA County area, they will call ZOE to respond within 90 minutes to provide victim advocacy support alongside a social worker. Or when a social worker or probation officer believes the child they are serving is a victim of sex trafficking or highly at risk of becoming a victim, they can request a ZOE Advocate to come alongside that youth to build relationship with to help the youth toward goals of safety, well-being, self-sufficiency, and a permanent home.

In 2020, ZOE served 112 youth through this program.These youth are served by an amazing team of about 12 ZOE Advocates including Case Managers, Survivor Advocates who have experienced and overcome commercial sexual exploitation themselves, and aParent Advocate whose child has recovered from sex trafficking.
Advocates’ primary focus in the beginning is to help the youth feel safe emotionally and physically. Many times, youth are in the midst of being controlled, influenced, threatened by traffickers so Advocates learn about the youth’s current circumstances; immediate physical, emotional, social, and other needs; and help the youth problem-solve their very dangerous situations. Through weekly in-person meetings, meals, healthy activities, and simply doing “life” together, Advocates become a mentor and safe person for youth to reach out to in times of need. Advocates spend most of their time on the field driving as far north as Lancaster, as far south as Long Beach, and as far east as Pomona.
ZOE is able to provide formal support up to a year and a half. For youth who complete the program, ZOE hosts a graduation celebration to honor their achievements and strengths. Due to COVID, ZOE had our first graduation in March 2021 and have since had two more graduations. We anticipate hosting approximately

five or six graduations a year.

At the graduations, youth are able to share any words of reflection from the past year while Advocates are able to praise them for their accomplishments. It is always an emotional, encouraging time to remember how far the youth have come. Youth have shared:
“I want to say thank you to my Advocates because if I didn’t have ZOE, I don’t think I would be here today. I think I would be in a very dangerous situation.”

“Looking at myself and comparing it to back then, I’m a completely different person. I know when I’m mad to talk to someone and use my communication. And I know how to have situations in a positive manner. I’m thankful for people who helped me through it all, every step of the way. But all the hard work was from me but I couldn’t have done it without the comfort, the motivation from my Advocate who has helped me in all the ways that she could. To all the Advocates and just the ZOE program in general, I personally would like to say that I appreciate all of you for changing this path and helping kids to thrive.”

At our most recent graduation in August 2021, a youth and his ZOE Advocate shared about how he struggled to engage in the beginning of the program. But with the persistent efforts and care of the Advocate, he began to meet, improve his relationship with his mother, and began to complete school assignments. He also shared about his dream to open his own clothing business. ZOE took him

 on outings to visit the fashion district, interview a business owner, and create a design for his own clothing line with a graphic designer. At the graduation, ZOE was able to present him with a tshirt and sweatshirt with his design. It was a physical representation and reminder of all the hard work he did in the program.

In addition, our Parent Advocate was also able to honor parents who participated in ZOE’s program by encouraging them to continue to love their children unconditionally and support them intheir journey toward healing.

Ongoingly, if individuals, organizations, or businesses wish to support the children served in ZOE’s Advocacy Program, the following are always in need:

  • Updated Amazon wishlist: https://a.co/elZDNLZ
  • Gift cards for birthday/graduation/baby shower celebrations or meals with Advocates: Starbucks, McDonalds, Wingstop, Panda Express, Subway, Chick Fil A, Michaels, Amazon, Ulta Beauty, Sephora, Target, Walmart, Foot Locker, Bath & Body, Uber
  • Grocery gift cards: Food for Less, Albertsons, Vons, Ralphs
  • Snacks: Fruit flavored cans of Arizona Iced Tea, cans/bottles of Coke, spicy chips, cup o noodles, Goldfish crackers
  • Help with special events (baby shower, graduations, shopping for gifts on child’s Christmas wishlist)
  • Church groups all over LA County willing to be trained to minister to some of our families who have basic needs and that we can connect our families to.
  • Be on emergency needs list: We can reach out when we have an urgent need if they are able to help
  • Vehicles/drivers to delivery donated furniture
  • Hosting support groups and events at safe settings like churches
  • Meals for support groups

We are so thankful for community, business, and church partners who have helped ZOE meet the needs of these precious children, including:

  • First and last month’s rent deposit to relocate in order to escape threats from traffickers
  • Extensive dental treatment allowing a youth to smile for the first time in two years after the loss of her front teeth from an assault
  • Emergency cell phones for youth to contact ZOE in crisis
  • Emergency hotel stay for 18+ youth who are escaping traffickers
  • Uber rides for 18+ youth who need last-minute transportation to their job or to escape traffickers
  • Furniture for families whose child is returning home after being reunified

ZOE’s Advocacy Program in Los Angeles

November 2, 2021
Through ZOE’s Advocacy Program in Los Angeles, we serve children and families who have been impacted by human trafficking or highly at risk of trafficking. We are so thankful for our amazing partners who provide opportunities and experiences for the children we serve. Recently, ZOE partnered with New Dawn Foundation to provide an experience with horses, which has been found to be therapeutic and healing for survivors of trauma and trafficking.
Most of the teens were excited to walk the ponies, pet and brush them, and even guide them through obstacles. Later, the group had time to process what everyone was feeling and thinking.
In one instance, a teen was hesitant to engage. A pony continued to walk over to her, brush up against her, trying to get her attention. Eventually, the teen pet it gently and participated in the next activity. At the end of the day, the youth whispered:
“I loved it.”
If you would like to learn more about how you can be a part of the healing and restoration of the children ZOE serves, contact info@gozoe.org.

Child Trafficking in Japan

September 22, 2021

“As reported over the past five years, human traffickers subject Japanese and foreign men and women to forced labor and sex trafficking, and they subject Japanese children to sex trafficking”

– U.S. Department of State, Trafficking In Persons Report, June 2021

Worth an estimated $24 billion(1), the sex industry of Japan is considered enormous by any standard. The pornography industry alone reached a value of approximately $960 million in 2019(2). To meet this huge demand, it comes as no surprise then that thousands of men, women and children are living in conditions of modern day slavery(3).

What is perhaps surprising, is that the general public remains largely unaware of this terrible evil occurring in plain sight. Those that are familiar with the concept of human trafficking perceive it as something that happens in developing countries as a result of poverty and lack of education, certainly not in Japan.

Skyline of Japan with Lets fight human trafficking in the sky

Skyline of Japan with Lets fight human trafficking in the sky

It is a long and slow process for the authorities and non-profit sector to lift the veil on this terrible crime, introduce much needed policy reforms and facilitate a change in the mindset of survivors, perpetrators and the general public at large. Bi-annual meetings between the government and members of JNATIP (Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons) provides a critical platform to identify issues and develop action plans to address the gaps.

However, despite the efforts of government and activists, the lack of awareness and remaining legal loopholes provide plenty of opportunities to exploit Japanese and foreign women for prostitution, with perpetrators often targeting women (including single mothers) that are vulnerable after losing their regular jobs due to the impact of COVID-19. Many young men are also trapped in the industry, but Japanese legislation only recognizes women as potential victims, making it extremely difficult for men to find a legal avenue out of their situation.

But it’s not just sex trafficking. In recent years, labor exploitation of migrant workers has come into sharp focus in the local and international media. This is specifically prevalent in the government’s Technical Intern Training Program, which despite its good intentions, often finds sending organizations or local employers abusing loopholes in the system to exploit workers through debt bondage and poor working conditions.

Especially disturbing is the exploitation of children. The possession of child sexual abuse images (child pornography) was declared illegal in 2014, a great step forward, but still remains widely available. This contributes to the exploitation of thousands of children for prostitution, sextortion and various other forms of sexual abuse. While law enforcement is cracking down on perpetrators, NPOs such as ZOE Japan focus on raising awareness among parents and children, a key prevention strategy, and supporting survivors of child trafficking with potentially life-saving information and resources.

The It’s A Penalty Tokyo Campaign provides a fantastic opportunity to accelerate these awareness and prevention efforts. Through this campaign, we aim to provide a message of hope to survivors and to actively engage the public in the battle to eliminate human trafficking in Japan.

As an organization on the front line, we are greatly encouraged to have the backing of It’s A Penalty as we move forward with our goal to reach every person and rescue every child.

Written by Annerie van Wyk

– @ZOEJapan

Hoffman, Michael (25 April 2007). “Japan’s love affairs with sex”. The Japan Times Online. Retrieved 20 December 2017.
https://www.statista.com/statistics/1125880/japan-market-size-non-contact-sex-self-pleasure/
https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/country-studies/japan/

ZOE USA receives license to open ZOE Home for Youth in Los Angeles

September 17, 2021

We are so excited to have finally received our license to open the ZOE Home for Youth (ZHY). “From 2016, when we closed escrow and submitted our plans to receiving our license to open, God has been guiding us, answering prayers and performing miracles along the way,” said Vickie McCoy, ZHY Residential Manager.

Australians Respond to Modern-day Slavery

September 17, 2021

ZOE Australia has been working hard to communicate that awareness, education, and support make a difference in seeing children rescued, loved, restored, and healed!

“Our Pathways to Preventing Child Trafficking course equips Australians to respond to modern-day slavery spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and pragmatically,” said David Cross, ZOE Australia Director. “We have nearly 60 students currently enrolled in the online course. We believe that our toolkits help bring awareness to various industries and social-action groups. For faith-based communities we have prayer-based guides which focus on God’s heart for the fatherless. By using ZOE’s curriculums, toolkits, and guides, individuals, groups, and whole communities better understand the problem of human trafficking and work to change their actions towards others – whether directly or indirectly.” ZOE Australia

ZOE Japan Brings Awareness to Tokyo Olympics

September 17, 2021

With UK nonprofit, It’s a Penalty, ZOE Japan worked on the frontlines of a large-scale human trafficking awareness campaign for the Tokyo Summer 2021 Olympics, held July 23rd through August 8th.

 

“We are excited to have worked together with It’s a Penalty to raise awareness of human trafficking around the Tokyo Summer Olympics,” said Hiromi Hataji, ZOE Japan Regional Director.

“We prepared various campaign materials and distributed videos, posters, and other awareness materials at airports, train stations, participating hotel groups, and other key locations. The ZOE Japan team also established a new call center that was used during the Olympics and that we will continue to use ongoingly. We have received calls from concerned family members and directly from potential survivors of human trafficking.”

ZOE Japan is spearheading the call center and owns the number, but support for survivors is provided in collaboration with other NPOs that are also members of JNATIP (Japan Network Against Trafficking In Persons).

“By utilizing this professional network, we are able not only to provide support to children but also to connect adult survivors with specialist organizations that can support them,” said Hiromi.

“The call center number is the official number used for the It’s A Penalty campaign, providing a great amount of exposure.  And, now that the Olympics are over, we are continuing to use the same call center number for cases related to children.”

Learn more about the Tokyo Olympics human trafficking awareness campaign.

 

It’s a Penalty campaign video shown on the Tokyo Metro, the Haneda Airport, Shibuya Crossing, on Emirates, Japan Airlines, and Cathay Pacific Flights.

ZOE Mexico Team Educates Pastors and NGOs About Child Trafficking

September 17, 2021

Like most countries, many of Mexico’s citizens have never heard of human trafficking. ZOE Mexico is working on innovative ways to educate its citizens about human trafficking. Currently, the team is focusing on speaking with pastors and their churches who are hungry to know how they can help.

Our ZOE Mexico team has also met with several government departments about what steps we can take to inform the public and educate communities about child trafficking, especially the most vulnerable areas. The government recently launched a campaign to bring awareness to human trafficking. Our team is also working with other NGOs to communicate about the problem and dangers to those they serve.

What is Fueling Child Trafficking in Mexico?

  1. Organized crime and greedy opportunists recruit children with force, fraud, or coercion for labor and sex.
  2. Poverty fuels child trafficking – most families do not understand where their children end up; they want to believe the trafficker. They believe their child is safe, going to school, or working a job for a better future.

“We met a mother on the streets with two of her small children involved in high-risk behavior,” said Mauricio Ruiz, Mexico Director.

“Our team encouraged her to allow her children to attend school to get them off the streets. She finally agreed, and the two children are signed up to attend “E Kids School,” a Christian school for at-risk children. These children will receive more than just a great education. They will receive delicious meals and all of their immediate needs met in a safe and loving environment. They will also have an opportunity to hear about Jesus!”

ZOE Thailand Re-Focuses its Awareness Efforts in Light of Third Lockdown

September 17, 2021

In early July, Thailand placed 10 million people in the capital under new coronavirus restrictions. “With COVID, the whole country shut down,” said Les Ginoza, ZOE Thailand Director. “We had to change the way we have done our awareness programs quickly.”

The ZOE Thailand team focused on creating media and educating underage kids to prevent them from being exploited.

“We developed a lot of videos because we could no longer go village to village or go into schools,” said Les. “When we did that, our reach increased. We were able to touch a lot more people with our awareness program. Although Covid is a terrible issue, God always shows us the silver lining.”

The pandemic and loss of tourism income has thrown millions in Thailand into poverty. “We quickly changed our focus to help provide basic food necessities to the neediest of families,” said Les. “In partnership with Children’s Hunger Fund we donated food packs to families while also sharing the gospel and God’s love for them. Families have been overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Child Rescue Team

Recently, ZOE Thailand welcomed 16 members of the Foreign Anti-Narcotic and Crime Community of Thailand (FANC) who represent law enforcement from ten different countries.

“This was the very first time we had an international community of law enforcement come together to discuss human trafficking,” said Les. “The group began to work on a plan to better track down perpetrators who have left Thailand and have gone back to their native countries. This is a big issue that we are trying to resolve, and it takes coordination from the entire international community.”

Thailand ZOE Team

Eight Lancaster County Men Win the 2021 Ultra-Cycling Event, Race Across America

July 14, 2021

On June 25, 2021, eight cyclists from Lancaster County and twelve crew members, all representing ZOE International, finished first place in the non-stop, 3,000-mile transcontinental relay race from California to Maryland, Race Across America (RAAM).

The 2021 RAAM consisted of 7, 8-man cycling teams and 17 teams of 2, 4, and 8, along with 12 solo racers. The ZOE cycling team completed the race in 6 days and 27 minutes with an average speed of 21.03 mph while climbing over 100,000+ feet.

“After competing in 2019, we knew our limitations and capabilities and thought we might have a chance to win this year,” shared Brad. “We set out to do our race and not let the competitors set the race for us. We knew we couldn’t make a mistake. So we plugged all the gaps we had in 2019, and we trained a lot harder this year. Ultimately, we capitalized on the experience we had from 2019 to win the race in 2021!”

For 39 years, the RAAM has become a global icon, challenging ultra-cyclists from over 35 countries to push their physical and mental limits to the utmost. RAAM has also become an enormous platform for cyclists to raise funds for charities that they hold close to their hearts. Each year, RAAM cyclists raise over 10 million dollars in donations, dispersed to multiple charities.

In 2019, the 8-man cyclist team placed third and raised over $175,000 for ZOE International.

ZOE RAAM Team cyclists at the finish line winning first place

ZOE RAAM Team cyclists at the finish line winning first place

This year the team raised over $350,000 for ZOE International. The issue of child sex trafficking is an issue that is close to the team’s heart. “The idea to compete in this race all began when I first traveled to ZOE International in Thailand in 2014,” said Brad Ortenzi, ZOE International Eastern US Regional Director and Race Across America Director and Cyclist.

“While visiting the home for children who have been trafficked at ZOE Thailand, I was inspired by the children’s fight. Every one of them was a fighter – fighting to get their life back. Contact: Brad Ortenzi (717) 708-8109- cell brad@goZOE.org Lonna Gibson (661) 388-1295 lonna@goZOE.org – Continued – Lonna Gibson (661) 388-1295 lonna@goZOE.org Their fight inspired me and changed my life. Competing in the Race Across America allows ZOE to take this fight against child sex trafficking across the United States.”

The eight-man cycling team included Nate Eakin, Matt Lapp, Allen Fisher, Sam Lapp, Elmer Fisher, Jonathan Fisher, Allan Fisher, and Brad Ortenzi – all from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Many team members began training as early as the Fall of 2020, putting in the hours on stationary bikes, riding outdoors, strength training, and swimming.

Cyclist Allan Fisher added, “I wasn’t aware of human trafficking happening in the states. ZOE is bringing freedom to many children, and I want to stand with them because I believe in what they are doing.”

Not only do the cyclists compete in the race, but they also have a goal to raise $20,000 each for ZOE International.

“It costs about $70,000 for us to compete in the race, including the entrance fee, uniforms, helmets, fuel, and travel,” said Brad. “Any additional monies raised over the cost of expenses are donated to ZOE International to help rescue more children and care for and restore the rescued children entrusted in their care.”

Current sponsors for ZOE’s RAAM team are Breeo, Country Lane Gazebos, Weaver Construction, Lapp Structures, Sensenig’s Feed Mill, Select Carpentry, Earthsource, Fisher Brothers, Eagle Rental, Urban Southern, TLS Carpentry, US Boiler Company, Lititz VFW, Lancaster Bike Shop, Bicycle Barn and Campaign Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE).

Locally, Brad is also the Coordinator for the Lancaster County Task Force working alongside the District Attorney’s office and is a few months away from officially launching. The Lancaster County Human Trafficking Task Force will investigate, prosecute, and find restorative paths for trafficking survivors within Lancaster County. This will also include community outreach with prevention education and awareness of trafficking.

ZOE International was founded in 2002 with a mission to reach every person with God’s love and rescue every child from human trafficking through prevention, rescue, and restoration efforts in the USA, Thailand, Mexico, Japan, and Australia. More information about ZOE International can be found at goZOE.org and the 2021 Race Across America at www.raceacrossamerica.org.

Contact:

Brad Ortenzi (717) 708-8109- cell brad@goZOE.org

Lonna Gibson (661) 388-1295 lonna@goZOE.org

Lancaster Cycling Team Prepares for Race Across America RAAM

June 14, 2021

8 Lancaster County cyclists prepare for 3,000-mile bike race to raise $250K to fight sex trafficking

Erik Yabor – Staff Writer

A group of Lancaster County residents are preparing to set off on a 3,000 mile bike trek to raise money for an international nonprofit that combats child sex trafficking. An eight-man relay team and 12 crew members depart from Oceanside, California, on Saturday with a plan of arriving in Annapolis, Maryland, less than a week later as part of Race Across America (RAAM), an annual ultra-endurance cycling race that spans the United States. 

Brad Ortenzi and other ZOE bike riders“It is a race,” said team leader Brad Ortenzi, 53, a former Ephrata police detective who served for 20 years, “but it’s more of a platform for nonprofits and cyclists to either raise awareness for a project or to raise funds for charities.” RAAM cyclists raise more than $10 million each year for their charities of choice, according to the organization’s website. The Lancaster County team’s sponsored charity, ZOE International, is focused on helping survivors of child sex trafficking across the globe.

“ZOE is bringing freedom to many children, and I want to stand with them because I believe in what they are doing,” said team member Allan Fisher, 33, of Gordonville.

Ortenzi, ZOE’s Eastern U.S. Regional Director, has been involved with the faith-based international nonprofit with operations in five countries since 2014, when he visited their refuge house in Thailand to meet with child survivors of sex trafficking. “Every one of them was a fighter – fighting to get their life back,” he said. “Their fight inspired me and changed my life. Competing in the Race Across America allows ZOE to take this fight against child sex trafficking across the United States.” The Lancaster County team’s goal this year is to raise $250,000 for ZOE, with more than $198,000 already raised, according to ZOE International’s website.

Children’s stories motivate mission

Ortenzi had been working undercover online seeking out traders of child pornography, a job he described as “heartcrushing” work, when he began looking for a new career he could take on post-retirement. It was Ortenzi’s pastor who suggested that he reach out to ZOE, believing he would be a natural fit due to his background in law enforcement. “It was clear from the beginning that Brad has a passion for justice,” said Brian Flewelling, a pastor at Petra Church in Earl Township, which Ortenzi has attended since 2012. “He has a skillset that is unique to anyone else in the field.” Flewelling helped facilitate a meeting between Ortenzi and a person who was connected with leadership at ZOE’s Los Angeles campus.

“To see (Ortenzi) emotionally moved by the mission and mandate that ZOE was carrying, it was clear that something was happening in his heart and his spirit where their vision was being shared,” Flewelling said. “He really felt a need to be a partner in that.” From there, a trip to ZOE’s refuge for child victims of sex trafficking in Thailand was quickly arranged.

photo of Brad Ortenzi ZOE International Eastern USA Regional Director

photo of Brad Ortenzi
ZOE International
Eastern USA

 

“They were cared for, they were loved, and they were on their way back to a really healthy path,” he said. Ortenzi later wrote in his journal that “it seemed like they had a grasp on joy that I didn’t.” “Never being around trafficked children before, I expected the worst,” he said. “We just didn’t see that. These kids were really on a good path.” During one prayer session, an 8-year-old girl who had been rescued from sex trafficking offered a prayer. It was for Ortenzi. Though he didn’t understand the child’s Thai language, Ortenzi said the moment made Ortenzi and his wife feel he had a new calling in life.

“’You have skills right now that could help free rescued trafficked children, and there’s no amount of retirement that could add up to that,’” Ortenzi said his wife told him. Moving from Lancaster County to Thailand was a gargantuan undertaking, Ortenzi said, but “this was something we wanted to be a part of.”

Regional Director Ortenzi and his wife arrived to find what he described as a “first-class operation” consisting of about 100 Thai staff and another two dozen international missionaries, but what really impressed him was the bravery and resilience of the children.

“It was a culture shock, but we were both world travelers before,” he said. “In the military I was all over the place.”Now back in the U.S., Ortenzi has since been tasked with helping coordinate a new anti-human trafficking task force by the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office, an effort ZOE is assisting by donating his time to the county.

Riding to raise funds, awareness

Ortenzi first came up with the idea to ride bicycles across the country to raise money for ZOE in 2018, when he and 46 others rode from Virginia to California, raising nearly $300,000 for the nonprofit, in an event unrelated to RAAM.“We realized we probably had a pretty good idea here,” he said. Ortenzi and his wife were in the process of moving back to Lancaster County from ZOE’s Thailand branch in 2019 when they learned about RAAM and decided to enter their own eight-member relay team, nearly identical in lineup to the team that’s competing this year. Some of the team members had been cycling with Ortenzi since that first cross-country trek in 2018. Others he knew from church, or from friends of friends. “They’re all just guys who love cycling and really connected with what ZOE is doing,” Ortenzi said.

The Lancaster County cyclists took their training and preparations seriously for the race, “but once we got on the road it was more intense than what we thought,” Ortenzi said. “We didn’t really know what to expect, and quite honestly we were sort of going naïve into the situation,” he said. “We trained hard and we tried to prep hard, but the logistics of this thing were almost astronomical.” The team was racing at a much faster rate of speed than what they were anticipating, throwing their lodging plans into disarray. “We were pretty much on the run and we had to make some major decisions and change things up,” Ortenzi said. Even with the logistical hurdles, the team placed third in its division, finishing with a time of six days, five hours and 52 minutes – an average of 20.3 mph.

cyclists in a hudle

cyclists in a hudle

“RAAM officials had mentioned that they don’t remember a rookie team ever being on the podium,” Ortenzi said. “They were pretty surprised, and we were pleasantly surprised as well.”More importantly, the team raised more than $175,000 for ZOE International.This year, team members are taking into account the lessons they learned in 2019 and are hoping to avoid some of the same mistakes they made.Training began at the end of last fall, with team members hoping to reach the peak of their cardiovascular fitness right as the race is set to begin.

Training can involve “a little bit of everything,” Ortenzi said, including swimming, weight training, running and meeting with personal trainers. Many of the more recent training regimens have taken place on bicycles, with team members riding at least four to six times each week, sometimes for hours at a time.The thousands of hours spent training for the race since the fall were made possible because of the race’s philanthropic focus, Ortenzi said.To that end, more than one dozen local businesses and organizations are backing the team.“Lancaster Countians really seem to rally around us and engage with what we’re doing,” Ortenzi said. “It became a really great awareness project for ZOE here in Lancaster County.”

People interested in donating to ZOE International’s cause can do so at https://gozoe.org/raam-2021/.