Why I Ride

For 13th Birthdays

Hi everyone! My name is Ashley! I am a graduate student at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee studying health economics, but I was born and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota!  

Although I have lived in Nashville for the past 5 years, Minnesota will always be my home and hold a special place in my heart. One of my favorite places to go to growing up was the Mall of America (MOA). The MOA was the “it” place to spend your time. Imagine a giant indoor mall with any and every store you could imagine, an entire movie theatre, a huge aquarium, and a large amusement park smack dab in the center. What more could you ask for? It really doesn’t get much better than that, and it seemed like heaven on earth to my naïve mind growing up.  

I truly feel like some of my fondest childhood memories existed because of the MOA. This is the place where I rode my first roller-coaster, and learned that I truly do love a good adrenaline rush. I did gymnastics for 12 years because I fell in love with the bouncy house at Camp Snoopy (the name of the amusement park in the middle of the MOA). I even threw my 13th birthday at the MOA – I loved it that much.

As I got older, my vision of the MOA started to mature. I can’t remember the exact moment when I first heard about sex trafficking, but I quickly learned that it went hand in hand with the MOA. I cannot speak for all Minnesotans, but I know that many people in my community were warned that the MOA was a known “sex trafficking hot spot.” I couldn’t tell you what this meant growing up (or quite honestly even now), but I knew that “stranger danger” existed, and I couldn’t go to the MOA unsupervised. Reality started to place a gloomy cloud in my naïve mind. There was a reason why my parents never let my sister and I go to the MOA alone – and it wasn’t just because my mom loves to shop.  

When I first started educating myself about sex trafficking, after I got accepted into Pedal the Pacific, I was most struck by the fact that sex trafficking is a crime that exists because it exploits love. Groomers learn how to perfectly exploit their victims and sell them a false sense of love and security.

The older I get, the more I realize that I had such a privileged childhood. Not because I lived 10 minutes from the MOA, but because I was taught and shown every day what real love was. I was able to feel safe at a “sex trafficking hot spot” and create the fondest memories.  

The Minnesota Department of Transportation released a report in 2017 that stated “the average age a sex trafficking victim is first sold is 13 years old” (https://www.dot.state.mn.us/humantraffickingawareness/).  

13. Remember how I said I celebrated my 13th birthday at the MOA? 13th birthdays should be celebrated with your friends and family. 13th birthdays should be celebrated at your favorite place. 13th birthdays are the time to make your own “Hunger Game” shirts, so when you go to watch the “Hunger Games” before spending all afternoon going on rides, people know you are a real fan because that is important to 13-year-olds.  

I first learned about Pedal the Pacific through one a PTP alumni who just happens to be one of my best friends from college (Carmella if you’re reading this, you’re seriously the BEST!) I watched Carmella bike down the coast and became so inspired by her, but I didn’t think that I could ever join PTP myself. It wasn’t until after the 2021 ride when Carmella texted me saying “You’re applying for Pedal, right” that I remembered everything that I was told about sex trafficking and the MOA growing up. What I still don’t understand is why did I grow up learning that the MOA was a sex trafficking hot spot, but never how to do anything about that… It just doesn’t seem fair for me to sit on the side lines any longer.

So, I still have so much to learn. I am the furthest from feeling like a qualified advocate, and don’t even get me started on my utter lack of ability to ride a bike. Although I still feel a little insecure calling myself an advocate, I cannot get past the fact that every day across America, 13-year-old children are stripped of their innocence. So, I ride because this sort of love and safety that I felt growing up should not be a luxury. I ride so that every child can be a child. I ride because malls should truly be heaven on earth. I ride because every 13-year-old should be able to celebrate their birthday with their friends and family and look back at those memories with only a smile on their face.

May 13, 2022
by 
Sydnee Mwakutuya

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