By Krissi Khokhobashvili, Deputy Chief
CDCR Office of External Affairs

HOW TO HELP
What: Courage Triathlon
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25
Where: Plumas Pines Resort, Canyondam
To learn more about Courage Triathlon, or to sign up to run or volunteer, visit https://courageworldwide.org/couragerun/triathlon/.

Northern California prison staff are banding together in the name of ending child sex trafficking, giving their time, money, and physical abilities to the cause.

In 2013, Dawn Hershberger, a correctional officer at California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, heard Jenny Williamson speak about her nonprofit, Courage Worldwide, which rescues and supports victims of sex trafficking. After hearing her speak for only three minutes, Hershberger knew she needed to help.

She reached out to the nonprofit to ask how she could assist, and was told they were in need of a way to transport clients to appointments and other community events. Hershberger partnered with fellow Correctional Officer Joanne Vice and Capt. Randy Hewitt, and the team began organizing a run to raise funds to buy a van. With just three months to plan the Courage Run, they raised more than $4,000. Inspired and motivated, they set their sights on a bigger goal, and the Courage Triathlon was born.

Since its inception the triathlon has raised more than $60,000 to support victims of child sex trafficking. It has brought together supporters from throughout the Lassen County community and beyond, and united CDCR staff from multiple institutions, and many law enforcement partners, to raise funds and awareness.

“We have had a 9-year-old from the Czech Republic compete, and an 84-year-old lady competed on a team with her daughter and granddaughter,” Hershberger said. “The president of Lassen Community College lost 66 pounds because, he said, ‘If kids are being sold for sex, the least I can do is train for the triathlon. I can run so they don’t have to.’”

The course may be beautiful, but it’s no walk in the park. The 14-mile “mini sprint” triathlon consists of three legs, beginning with a 2.8-mile run followed by a 7.1-mile bike ride and 4.1-mile kayak.

Even those who can’t compete in the entire event are encouraged to participate. Hershberger remembers a 13-year-old girl, suddenly paralyzed from the waist down due to a rare disease, who joined in by starting the triathlon buzzer and paddling in the kayak portion.

“The triathlon has become more than just an event – it’s a life-changing event for many,” Hershberger said. “I’m so excited to see how a desire to do something created a community event that raises a large amount of money to benefit victims of child sex trafficking and encourages commitment to community.”

Denise Bellacera, office and events manager for Courage Worldwide, said events like the triathlon are an important source of revenue for the organization, which serves victims over age 18 in the states and runs a home in Tanzania that serves victims of all ages. Stateside, Courage assists victims by providing a home and any other services needed to get back on their feet, from childcare and bill assistance to helping obtain identification and medical care.

“It’s such a small community, but all the locals come out,” Bellacera said of the triathlon. “It’s a great way to create awareness and let the communities know what is really happening.”

Courage Worldwide representatives will be at the event to share information and provide education about their mission. Throughout the year, Courage partners with community organizations and law enforcement for events and trainings to share best practices and develop effective partnerships.

“This crime happens as much in small towns as it does in big cities,” Bellacera said. “It happens in suburbia, it happens everywhere.”

She praised the numerous volunteers and runners who make the triathlon possible, including of course Hershberger and Vice at the helm of the event.

“I call them my dynamic duo,” Bellacera said. “They literally hit the ground running with this event four years ago and they are amazing. They put so much into this event – I think the week after last year’s event they were already working on this year’s.”

The course is held on the shores of Lake Almanor, at the Plumas Pines Resort, and is professionally timed by Bizz Running Company owner Linda Powell, a California Highway Patrol (CHP) sergeant. CHP plays a huge role in the event, coming out to volunteer and assist with traffic control, including lending their changeable message sign to help keep everybody safe.

The runners, bikers and kayakers are kept motivated by DJ Doug Cain, a correctional counselor at CCC. Numerous sponsors donate to the cause, from prizes supplied by Edge Art Gallery in Newport, Oregon, to sponsorships from Fleet Feet in Chico, Sierra Rec Magazine and JDX Radio in Susanville.

“It’s more than just CDCR, for sure,” Vice said. “It really is the community coming together as much as we can. It has really unified all of our law enforcement agencies, and that’s huge.”

Staff from CCC, neighboring High Desert State Prison (HDSP) and Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) in Jamestown, including several retirees, give their time to help out each year. Numerous law enforcement partners and community organizations turn out as well, including Janesville, High Sierra and Susan River Fire Departments, Lassen County Sheriff’s Department, Plumas Bank, Honey Lake Assembly of God, Community Church of Susanville, California Correctional Supervisors Association, and more. Local retailers provide water, food and snacks, and Uptown Uniforms pulls out all the stops to provide swag bags for participants.

“We are surrounded by amazing people who really come forward and say, ‘Put us to work,’” Vice said.

Wrangling them all is SCC Warden Hunter Anglea, the Courage Triathlon volunteer coordinator. While it’s a huge undertaking, Anglea is quick to give credit to the team of organizers and volunteers who make it happen.

“For the last 30 years, I have worked at prisons in rural communities, and the staff at the local institutions really support and are part of the community. To see them doing this – I’m not shocked at all.”

It takes over 100 volunteers to put on the triathlon, from ferrying bikes and kayaks to manning water and aid stations, directing traffic and even camping out the night before the event to stage kayaks and be up bright and early to work the registration booth. This year will even feature an appreciation banquet to honor the triathlon volunteers.

“Some staff are here the night before doing registration till 10 p.m., then up again running registration and 7, and some only have an hour or two worth of work,” Anglea said, “but we couldn’t do it without all of them.”

At HDSP, volunteers like Lt. Gregory Crowe turn out for the event as well. HDSP fields about 20 people each year who either compete in the event or volunteer, including Warden M. Eliot Spearman, to help bring awareness to the more than 8,000 human trafficking cases reported in the United States each year.

“The cause is definitely worthy,” Crowe said. “I personally was unaware of how large an issue it was in the U.S.”

“We were so ignorant,” said Vice, sharing how shocked she and Hershberger were to learn of sex trafficking’s far reach. “We have been in law enforcement collectively for over 50 years, and we were just floored when we found out it was happening here in America.”

Giving back to communities is the CDCR way. In addition to Courage Worldwide, prisons and CDCR divisions throughout the state raise funds and volunteer for charity all year long, from Special Olympics and veterans’ organizations to youth sports, schools, families in need and, arts organizations and more.

If coordinating a gigantic community event wasn’t enough, Hershberger is also able to provide sex-trafficking awareness training, both at events like the triathlon and to smaller groups. She has spoken around California, and has traveled to Montana, Oregon and Idaho to teach others about awareness, identifying victims, and how to safely take action. Each year, she holds the “Not In My City, Not In My State” event, featuring guest speakers from Courage Worldwide, the FBI, lawmakers and other service organizations. Hundreds attend the educational event each year.

“I knew our county would want to act and make a difference, and they have indeed stepped up and out to end human trafficking,” Hershberger said. “If you were to ask why people from a rural part of California are fighting to end human trafficking, they would tell you we are officers, parents and community members, and no child will be hurt on our watch.”