For tourists visiting Fort Lauderdale, a stroll across the massive 17th Street Causeway Bridge affords a rare panorama of bustling Port Everglades and the city-block-sized cruise ships that navigate the waters leading out to the Atlantic Ocean. For Jen Klaassens, it's an invaluable training ground.
"I go up and down the 17th Street Causeway Bridge and back and forth," Klaassens said.
If her pacing behavior appears obsessive to any outside observers, that's because it is. Klaassens is in the midst of training for an upcoming 16-day climb of Mount Everest, no easy feat when you live in warm, flat South Florida. To safely navigate the terrain, Klaassens must be physically and mentally prepared for the climb, she said.
"I live in a condo, and I've been climbing my stairs," Klaassens said of prep work. "You've got to get creative."
Her six-day-a-week training regimen has benefited from the discovery of The Chamber, a specialty fitness center owned by former Miami Dolphins player Chris Chambers. The facility houses a Hypoxico Altitude Chamber filled with Pro-Form Tour De France bikes. The room's atmosphere mimics training at "10,000 feet" said Klaassens, who will be climbing to 17,598 feet to reach the Everest Base Camp and on to summit Kalaphatar at 18,192 feet.
Klaassens, vice president of programs at the Wasie Foundation, will be joined by three fellow other South Floridians in the April climb: Jill Taylor, Debbie Dingle, and Tina Yeager, director of Freedom Climb USA at Operation Mobilization. The Freedom Climb 2013 -- which includes a total of 44 women from around the world -- is in support of Operation Mobilization's global humanitarian efforts to assist women and children who are victims of exploitation, enslavement, oppression, and other aspects of human trafficking.
The Polaris Project defines human trafficking as "the modern day practice of slavery...based on the recruitment, harboring, and transportation of people solely for the purpose of exploitation." With her participation in the Freedom Climb, Klaassens hopes to raise awareness of human trafficking in South Florida. Few people realize how prevalent it is in this country or region, she said.
"So many educated folks in Broward County have no idea that it's happening in our backyard," Klaassens said. "They think it's an international problem...I just want be the voice for these women who don't have a voice."
A National Human Trafficking Resource Center study from 2011 ranked Florida as the third worst state for human trafficking in the United States, behind California and Texas. The Broward Human Trafficking Coalition states victims can be coerced to participate in the commercial sex trade, in sweatshops, domestic servitude, and numerous other forms of forced labor. Florida Responds to Human Trafficking, a report by the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, found that sex trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude were the primary areas of concern in Florida.
While South Florida is home to several task forces that target human trafficking, Klaassens said there is a need for more victim-focused resources and community awareness training, as well as organizations dedicated to solving the problem. Part of that is recognizing the problem to begin with.
"It's important to be aware of what to look for," Klaassens said. She said traffickers and pimps target the most vulnerable children and young adults they can find: "These kids have no love elsewhere. They're kids who aren't going to be missed."
Klaassens and her fellow South Florida climbers each will pay their own expenses to join the climb. They're also tasked with raising money to go to Operation Mobilization's programs. (Klaassens' pledge page can be found here.)
Several human trafficking survivors will be on the April expedition, Klaassens said. This has helped her to stay focused on the admittedly huge task at hand.
"I can't imagine the hell and back they've been through," she said. "It puts everything into perspective. I'm just taking it one step at a time."
Want to learn more about human trafficking in Florida? The Florida Council Against Sexual Violence maintains a list of "domestic minor sex trafficking Florida resources" here. Learn about the warning signs of human trafficking here. The National Human Trafficking tip line can be reached at 1-888-373-7888.