When Austin Knight was a freshman at Lexington Catholic High School, he stumbled upon a documentary about human trafficking. The PBS Frontline story detailed how the buying and selling of people for labor or sex was one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, second only to drug trafficking.
He was horrified.
Years later, when he got to the University of Kentucky, Knight decided to do something about the problem. What began in April as a speech and a Web site, Slavery is Real, has morphed into the UK's sophomore's driving passion — to educate the public about human trafficking and do whatever he can to eliminate it.
This weekend, the non-profit is teaming up with 12 runners from the Jessamine County school system in the fourth annual Bourbon Chase, a two-day, 200-mile relay race starting in Clermont and ending in Lexington. The goal is to raise $5,000 for Slavery is Real's outreach and educational efforts.
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Since April, the 19-year-old psychology major has given more than a dozen speeches to local organizations and university groups on human trafficking. With more money, the group can expand its education and outreach efforts to let more people know what they can do to help prevent human trafficking, Knight said in a recent interview.
Knight and his family and friends have paid the initial costs associated with starting Slavery is Real. Knight built the Web site himself while going to school full-time and working part-time.
Through the site, Knight has been able to connect people around the country with volunteer opportunities in their communities. He also has researched organizations that provide direct counseling and services to victims of trafficking, and he has listed those organizations. People can donate directly to those organizations through Slaveryisreal.org.
This weekend's run in the Bourbon Chase is the group's first major fund-raising effort, Knight said. None of the money that people donate goes to him, he said.
Knight credits his father and girlfriend for spurring him to do more than just complain.
When he went to UK last year, Knight said he was shocked at how many of his male classmates viewed women as objects. The objectification of women can lead men to believe that it's okay to buy women for sex, he said.
About 80 percent of human trafficking is sex trafficking, national statistics show.
"I think I bring a unique perspective because I am a young male and I am telling them that this isn't okay," Knight said of his speeches to younger audiences. "If we want to stop this, we have to stop the demand."
There have been 15 state indictments and two federal indictments for human trafficking charges in Kentucky since 2008, according to Kentucky Rescue and Restore, a network of organizations that provide services to human trafficking victims.
Marissa Castellanos, a program manager for Catholic Charities, said too few cases are reported and even fewer are prosecuted as human trafficking.
Kentucky Rescue and Restore says it has documented more than 91 cases of human trafficking in Kentucky since 2008 and has helped 138 victims of human trafficking.
"It's widely under-reported and under-prosecuted," Castellanos said. "Those 91 cases are a drop in the bucket."