Running for a reason: Teen brings awareness to sex trafficking
Zack Jennissen, a 19-year-old from Foley, is running across the entirety of Minnesota to raise awareness and funds for sex trafficking victims.
BRAINERD — If it helps just one person, then it’s worth it.
That’s how Zack Jennissen feels about his trek across Minnesota.
“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but it’s 100% worth it,” Jennisen said Wednesday, May 17, while stopped on Highway 25 between Pierz and Brainerd.
When a friend asked him if he would be willing to run 60 miles to raise money for an end to sex trafficking, Jennissen said he’d go 600.
The 19-year-old from Foley embarked May 1 on a journey by foot from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Grand Portage, Minnesota.
“I wanted to run across the state for a long time. That was a goal of mine,” Jennissen said. “So I took those two ideas, and I told them instead of running 50 miles, I would run 600.”
So that’s what he’s doing. Jennissen has become good friends with Brent Silkey, who founded 30ForFreedom. Silkey’s original goal was to get 30 friends to run 30 miles and raise $30,000 to help victims of sex trafficking in honor of his 30th birthday.
Over the past seven years, the nonprofit has raised $1.56 million for that cause, and it’s one that happens to be close to Jennissen’s heart, too.
“Since I was really young, my family got involved in foster care,” he said. “And we had many kids through our home. But then we eventually ended up adopting, and both of my adopted brothers, they have family history with human trafficking.”
That’s why Jennissen aims to raise $60,000 for 30ForFreedom during his run.
As of Friday, May 19, he was at $5,100 through direct donations and per-mile pledges. While it’s an ambitious goal, Jennissen said it could be broken down as simply as 600 people donating $100 a piece. And he’s made it easy for supporters to back him through his website zackruns.com , where he shares his story, logs his miles and provides a place for donations.
I would say that as far as my generation is concerned, it’s the greatest human rights issue of our time, and it’s not known.
As of Friday morning, Jennissen was 354 miles into his approximately 600-mile journey, and the trip wasn’t going quite as he expected.
“It’s been pretty rough. I didn’t really train for this,” he said. “My thought was, ‘How do you train for this?’ Right? And I’ve always been a runner, so I just kind of banked on that and my youth, and it didn’t get me as far as I thought it would.”
A track and cross-country runner in high school, Jennissen is no stranger to long runs.
The first time he got involved in 30ForFreedom was during a church camp, when he was invited to take part in an event in which anonymous benefactors pledged money per mile for as long as the participants could run.
Jennisen figured he could do about 15-20 miles easily, but decided he’d go on as long as God would let him.
He ended up making it 50 miles, at a pace of 8 minutes and 47 seconds per mile.
This run, unfortunately, hasn’t gone as smoothly.
Jennissen developed some ankle injuries around his hometown of Foley, so the rest day he had planned turned into six. His ankles still aren’t 100%, so he’s been walking much of the way since then, hoping he’ll be able to get a point of running again.
While Wednesday’s overcast weather was perfect walking weather, Jennissen has had to contend with Mother Nature, too, running into a thunderstorm around New Ulm.
But he kept on going, and plans to keep plugging along, staying with friends and acquaintances at night along the way, or booking hotel rooms with the help of supporters.
“I didn’t realize how big my support network was until I set out,” he said. “There’s just so many people behind. Like, this started out maybe as a one-man show, but it certainly isn’t like that.”
Jennissen is still aiming for about 30 miles a day and is on track to finish in Grand Portage by Memorial Day weekend, as planned.
Even though it’s been a struggle, he’s not planning on giving up because the cause is too important.
“I would say that as far as my generation is concerned, it’s the greatest human rights issue of our time, and it’s not known,” he said.
The International Labor Organization believes roughly 12.3 million people are victims of human trafficking at any time, and the U.S. State Department estimated between 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked over international boundaries each year.
Locally, the national Human Trafficking Hotline received 335 trafficking tips in Minnesota in 2021. Of those tips, 119 came from victims or survivors of human trafficking.
According to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, about 40% of sex trafficking cases involve minors, and more than half of adults involved in trafficking were first victimized as children. Homeless children are especially targeted.
Jennissen thinks about those children when times get tough on the road.
“I kind of have this picture of a young girl or boy, just getting to live a full life because they don’t have to go through this, just being able to experience life as it should be experienced,” he said. “No one should have to go through that.”
Bringing awareness to the issue is even more important than the financial goal.
“It doesn’t end at 600 miles. It ends when human trafficking ends. It ends when it’s not something people have to worry about,” he said. “I want this to be the start of something bigger in my life.”
Supporting the cause
Jennissen accepts pledges and donations on his website, zackruns.com , and invites those interested in supporting the cause in another way to participate in any of the several runs hosted by 30ForFreedom.
The next in-person run is planned for May 27 in Bloomington, featuring a 5K, 10K, half marathon and 30-mile run. Jennissen plans to make it back south for that event when he finishes his trip.
Other runs in Cold Spring, Fulda, Sauk Center, Woodbury and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are scheduled throughout the summer.
For more information, visit 30forfreedom.org .
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.