By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on September 3, 2021
First Flight High School 2018 graduate and Kitty Hawk resident Meghan Savona set out from Seattle on a 1,700-mile bicycle ride with one purpose in mind – to raise awareness of sex trafficking, one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world.
Savona, 21 and now a senior at UNC-Wilmington, is part of a 12-member team of young women chosen for the 2021 Pedal the Pacific team – a team charged with logging the miles on the Pacific Coast, and along the way, being a voice in the fight against trafficking and raising money for the cause.
After more than six months of training on the issues related to trafficking as well preparing to make the nearly two-month-long trek, Savona and her team averaged between 40 and 60 miles a day for 51 days before arriving in San Diego on July 31. In the end, they exceeded their fundraising goal by collectively raising $170,000 toward anti-trafficking efforts.
The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to its website, saw a nearly 20 percent increase in trafficked victims and survivors who contacted the hotline in 2019. That year, the hotline estimates that there were 22,326 trafficking victims and survivors nationwide.
Pedal the Pacific is a non-profit organization created in 2017 to educate people about sex trafficking. According to its website, the organization uses bikes “as a platform to raise awareness, educate peers, fundraise for leading nonprofits, and develop leaders who believe that no voice is too small to make a difference.”
Savona, who is majoring in public health and Spanish at UNC-Wilmington, first learned about the organization through a fellow student while studying abroad. That student, now one of Savona’s best friends, had a small tattoo of a bicycle on her wrist. The more Savona learned about Pedal the Pacific, and its mission, the more she wanted to be a part of it.
“I knew nothing about what sex trafficking was and what it looked like,” Savona said. “And I didn’t really know anything about biking. But she took the time to explain it all to me and explain the impact that it had in her life, the impact that it had on others’ lives. And I was just so invested in it, kind of from the start. But I never thought that it was something that I would actually be able to do.”
During the training leading up to the ride, Savona and her teammates learned a lot about sex trafficking and how to be an advocate for others. “We were all concerned with certain social justice issues, but none of us really considered ourselves to be advocates, we didn’t really know what that looked like,” said Savona.
Although the team could have completed the route faster, part of their mission with Pedal the Pacific was to engage with as many people as they could along the way. The message is hard to miss since they were wearing Pedal the Pacific gear and were accompanied by a large blue van traveling nearby carrying the words, “Cycling to Fight Sex Trafficking.”
“One of the ways that we did that is by taking our time, stopping to talk to people, having meetings with DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] offices, and honestly just starting conversations with strangers,” Savona said. “I had no idea what sex trafficking was until I met this stranger [in Spain], who kind of got me involved and that’s kind the whole goal…to turn this into a cyclical thing.”
Along the route, the team would occasionally stay with host families, but mostly they camped in tents. They relied heavily on food donations, warm showers and other needs from the local communities they biked through.
“It was so surprising to me how generous people were and it was a great lesson for myself that it doesn’t matter if you [don’t] have a lot to give, giving something means more to people than you think it does,” she said.
Savona, who carried roughly 40 pounds of her own personal gear on her bike, said each day of the trip was just training for the next day. “I trained on the beach, so that terrain looks vastly different than the West Coast,” she noted. “Nothing could have prepared me for the hills and mountains and climbs that we experienced on that ride.”
But despite the grueling physical challenge, she says that sometimes the hardest part of the day can be the emotional toll.
“You know, the work we’re doing can be really emotionally fulfilling, but also emotionally exhausting,” Savona explained. “My teammates were so amazing. You could be having your highest part of the ride when somebody else is having their lowest low – and just giving each other that grace was so great to see, to stop and check on each other and just make sure that everyone is on the same page. Because at the end of the day, it is a team endeavor. It’s not something that you can complete individually.”
As for the future, Savona says she plans on staying involved with Pedal the Pacific and fighting against sex trafficking. She has also begun to explore internships in the Wilmington area where she could help survivors of sex trafficking.
And while Savona thought she would pursue a career in sales, she has begun to explore other options.
“I really realized with Pedal the Pacific how important doing good for others is to me,” she observed. “I don’t think that I could be happy in a career where I’m not at least trying to do something good for someone.”
Editor’s Note: “Unsung Heroes,” is a feature that profiles individuals whose work or activities help to improve life and lives in our community. The subjects can range from your next-door neighbor to a sheriff’s deputy, and the goal is to recognize someone making the OBX a better place — and doing so out of the bright glare of the public spotlight. If you have a nomination, please email email@example.com.