Two educators with ties to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune have been quietly making a difference for the past five years. Kathy Stokes, a substitute teacher at Tarawa Terrace Elementary School, and her husband Fritz, a teacher at Johnson Primary School, have conducted a Walk for Freedom in Jacksonville since 2015. The walks aim to shine a light on the continuing prevalence of slavery and human trafficking that occurs around the globe.

“We all come together today to stand against slavery,” Kathy Stokes said while addressing those in attendance prior to the walk. “We will lend a voice to the voiceless. We walk for them. We will bring awareness to this evil.”

The walks are part of an initiative brought about by international organization A21, standing for Abolish Slavery in the 21st Century. Every year, there are over 500 walks across 50 countries. When the Stokes’ started looking into the organization five years ago, they were stunned at the continued prevalence of modern slavery.

“Five years ago I didn’t think human trafficking existed,” Fritz Stokes said. “(Kathy) might have seen a few things here or there but it always seemed like it was going on in (some) other country.”

Sadly, trafficking does occur domestically. In 2018, Jajci Mechito Johnson II of Jacksonville was charged with trafficking a 16 year old and promoting her for prostitution. Earlier this year, three minor victims were recovered in North Carolina as part of the FBI’s ‘Operation Independence Day’ which led to 67 arrests across the country.

“This is important. Human trafficking can be related to drugs, power or someone being in genuine distress,” said Hans Miller, Onslow County sheriff, who was in attendance at the walk. “Freedom is the principal our country is founded on. Freedom for all. This modern day slavery is unacceptable. Today, we send a message.”

The single file line that proceeded down Western Boulevard, with signs raised high, drew the interest of motorists who honked their horns in recognition and solidarity.

“When I was walking I was thinking about the parents (of victims),” said Vivian Joseph, receptionist at Bitz Intermediate School. Joseph also recalls seeing who she believes were people being trafficked during a trip abroad in 2011. She was with her daughter, who was 11 at the time. That experience put things in perspective. When Stokes brought up the event to her, it clicked that she could help make a difference.

“I’m glad Kathy does it,” Joseph said. “I wish more people got involved.”

Moving forward, Kathy Stokes believes this movement will make a difference.

“We know freedom will have the final word,” Stokes said.