KAILUA-KONA — Micah Pexa hopes to be among the 20 percent to successfully complete the Appalachian Trail for a cause beyond taking up the physical challenge or facing the wilderness.
The ESL teacher from Hilo is trekking the longest hiking-only footpath in the world to raise awareness about human trafficking and fund-raise for NGO, “Friends of Thai Daughters” (FTD).
The organization helps girls to avoid the traps of trafficking in northern Thailand.
Pexa began the trek on March 12 in Georgia. As of Wednesday, he reached Marion, Virginia, and had hiked 533 miles of the whopping 2,181-mile trek.
But Pexa’s fight against trafficking has spanned more than 15 years. It began in 2001, when the issue got personal.
On his second trip to Thailand, he reconnected with a friend in Chiang Mai. He was rattled by how her life had worsened in recent years.
Though the woman received a degree in hotel management and was fluent in English, the only job she was offered was entertaining male clients in a hotel bar. She was now being pressured to begin prostituting herself.
Another friend of his, a former waitress at a restaurant, was also pulled into the bar and nightlife scene, a track that often leads to prostitution in Thailand.
“The whole situation really shook and depressed me,” Pexa wrote on his website.
Upon grappling with his friends’ harsh realities, Pexa embarked on a long-term search for organizations that help prevent women from being trafficked in Thailand.
The human trafficking predicament in Thailand is indeed a bleak one. Traffickers in Thailand often scavenge for the most vulnerable in rural and impoverished villages. They promise families opportunities for their girls to work as waitresses or maids, lying about an abundance of opportunities that await if their daughters leave with them.
They even make a “down payment,” on the girl, paying parents before their child is trafficked into prostitution.
After years of researching and time spent volunteering at other organizations, Pexa found and volunteered at Friends of Thai Daughters in 2009. The organization focuses on sheltering at-risk girls and funding their education through university.
“They are grabbing onto the right elements,” said Pexa, comparing FTD to other anti-trafficking organizations he believes spread their efforts too thin. “It’s quality over quantity,” he added.
Particia Zinkowski and Jane McBride started Friends of Thai Daughters after they found 15 abandoned at-risk girls in 2002 in the Thai village of Doi Luang and promised they wouldn’t forget about them.
They far from forgot, as FTD was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2005.
“Our model is very simple,” McBride wrote in an email to West Hawaii Today.
The organization places at-risk girls who are neglected or abandoned with house mothers in a family environment.
The girls are introduced to role models, “so they can dream of a future where they have control over their lives and body,” McBride said.
Pexa has a donation page in which all proceeds go directly to the organization for school uniforms, books, meals, medical care and education.
Support will also go toward helping the girls obtain Thai nationality. Many of the girls are stateless, either as ethnic minorities who fled Burma or Laos seeking better opportunities in Thailand, or as impoverished northern hill tribe people who never registered as citizens in Thai hospitals.
Economic opportunities, health care and social rights are extremely limited for the stateless in Thailand. While FTD is working on getting all of the girls Thai nationality, the process is extremely expensive and time consuming.
Pexa said he’d draw upon “the thought (of the cause)” in low moments.
The primary reason 80 percent fail to complete the Appalachian Trail, or AT, are psychological obstacles and the mental burnout of repetitive hiking, said Pexa.
“I contacted the organization trying to get a YouTube channel going. They sent me a bunch of (clips of the girls) before starting the trip. I got really emotional when they first sent the video,” he said.
Pexa said he will re-watch the videos if he ever feels like giving up.
Since McBride and Zinkowski began their preventative work against trafficking, they have helped over 75 young women receive an education and stay safe from sex traffickers.
“Our graduates now include nurses, teachers, school administrators, artists, entrepreneurs, and senior FTD staff and board members,” McBride said.
Right now, Pexa is averaging a pace of 15 to 17 miles per day with the hope of completing the trail within six months.
Pexa hit his initial $10,000 fundraising goal in early April. As of Thursday afternoon, he raised $12,487 of his bumped-up goal of $15,000.
“We are thrilled and honored by Micah’s herculean effort to hike the AT … we plan to organize several small groups — including some of our Thai Daughters who will be visiting this summer to join him along the way. It’s great to have such a strong and supportive male role model for our girls,” McBride said.
You can follow Pexa’s journey on his website: https://www.trekkingagainsttrafficking.com/
To give to FTD, donate to Micah’s GoFundMe Page: https://www.gofundme.com/trekkingagainsttrafficking
Learn more about Friends of Thai Daughters at their website: https://www.friendsofthaidaughters.org/