Two best buddies from Norristown, Pennsylvania, decided it was time to do something big in life. Jay Atlas, 23, and childhood friend Shannon Sprowal, 21, mapped out a walking route from Atlantic City to Los Angeles to bring attention to the horrors of human trafficking.
Atlas was inspired “to do something” after learning about the End It Movement while fellowshipping among 60,000 students at the Passion Conference in Atlanta, Ga., earlier this year. “We thought it would just be an epic adventure. Canned beans and pitch a tent with a fire. But, hasn’t been that,” said Atlas last week.
The pair left Atlantic City on July 15 with just $21 in their pocket and 50 lbs. of gear on each of their backs. “It’s been really humbling to have left with so little and to be helped by complete strangers along the way. We are men of faith so we like to think God will provide,” Atlas said.
The brothers, as they call themselves, are carrying perishable food, a tent, a red sharpie and an “End Human Trafficking” sign. They travel about 30 miles per day and plan to reach Los Angeles by the end of October.
They’ve coined their coast to coast trip — the Long Road to Freedom. They stay close to main roads but avoid roads without sidewalks. They are using Route 30 as their main pathway. They use the red sharpie to put X’s on the hands of people they meet who join them in spirit and their mission to end trafficking. For the past three weeks, they’ve had at least one meal a day and have found somewhere to sleep. “I’m loving it and embracing the hobo life. I’ve met more nice people than I thought that existed,” said Sprowal. “We are not hopping freight trains, at least not yet.”
Rosemarie Whiteley, Atlas’ mother, drove them to Atlantic City mid-July and fed them at a boardwalk diner before saying goodbye. “They always talked about doing something big, something important,” said Whiteley. “They felt this is something they could do. They have feet so they could walk. They didn’t have money, so they could walk.”
Like any mom would, Whiteley has worried about their well-being and whether they’ve had enough water on the trip. She’s suppressed her anxiety knowing they are doing something good and keeps up with their status updates on Facebook. “I’m scared to death. I’m concerned about them traveling safely throughout the country,” said Whiteley. “I cried all the way home (after dropping them off).”
Atlas was surprised how friendly people have been. They did have one bad experience in Everett, Pa., which stemmed from a man harassing them and yelling racist slurs outside a gas station. The ordeal ended with a state police officer telling them they should keep moving along on their trip.
Whiteley shared that both boys are biracial and has concerns for them traveling across the U.S. following the Trayvon Martin case and George Zimmerman verdict. Ohio was a turning point. “Out here in Ohio it’s been wonderful,” said Atlas. “After crossing the mountains, everything else is flat. We go for so much longer. I’m not really tired any more, kind of getting used to it.”
Once making it to Cleveland, the pair met the mother of Gina DeJesus, one of three woman held captive for a decade by Ariel Castro. Fate stepped in and Atlas was able to enter the courtroom for Castro’s sentencing, witnessing history. “It was amazing to see it all unfold. It reaffirmed my decision to do the walk and continue my efforts to end human trafficking and domestic violence,” said Atlas.
As of Friday, they’ve traveled approximately 600 miles and made it to Woodburn, Indiana. Spowal says he’s proud to say he’s slept in a dumpster. One night their tent collapsed and it was raining so the two crawled into a recycling bin for cover. “I can do nothing for the rest of my life and I will always have a story for my grandkids,” he said. The adventures of Atlas and Sprowal have gained an audience of well-wishers.
Joann Gail Moyer wrote on Facebook, “I know being in a dumpster is probably not the greatest but you are really showing how far you are willing to go for a great cause! Keep your heads up!”
When Whiteley gets paid she sends the duo Moneygrams via Walmart to make sure they are fed. Good samaritans they’ve met and those following their journey online have aided them along the way. Just this week, Lynn Bedwell of Lansdown arranged for a Walmart in Defiance, Ohio to give them a meal and new shoes as they walked into town. “I’m really proud of both of them. I wish that more kids were encouraged to do the right thing. There really are good kids out there,” said Whiteley.
The Long Road to Freedom Facebook page grew to more than 7,000 followers in its third week. Commenters posted to Atlas and Sprowal asking them to walk through their towns. Gina Anderegg Samm wrote: “I live in Belleville IL. You can stop in for dinner, shower, laundry and a place to sleep. I am just outside of St. Louis MO. I’ll email you my info.” Charles Jennings shared: “Each of you guys should wear a cape…. like a true superhero.” Atlas said people keep asking what they can do. All we need is prayer, he insisted.
In addition, the two are directing supporters to donate to the End the Movement campaign. So far, $5,000 has been raised as a result of their efforts. When they arrive in St. Louis next week, they plan to pause and conduct a “27hr Stand For Freedom” demonstration, which calls for an hour on their feet for each million people still in bondage. More to come on their Facebook page.
How are they getting home? Sprowal said they planned to take a bus back but may just walk. “We may just continue this and not stop walking until we are tired,” said Atlas.
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