Every year, The Freedom Story recognizes an individual or couple for our FREEDOM Award. The FREEDOM Award Recipient is a person that advocates for The Freedom Story’s mission and cause, has proven to ‘own’ the mission or cause in their own way, proactively seeks opportunities to lead on our behalf, and has exhibited an ‘over and above’ financial investment in our work. In December, we have chosen as our recipient, Adrian Rowse, Ping Pong-A-Thon Founder/Project Manager–or as he is more affectionately known, “The Director of Pong.”
In the words of Rachel Goble:
When Adrian came on our learning trip in 2009 it was obvious his commitment to anti-trafficking work was deep. He’s not looking for an easy solution, because he understands that the complexities of what we’re fighting take years of commitment and dedication. From volunteering in Thailand to founding the Ping-Pong-A-Thon, Adrian has exemplified selflessness, commitment, and the importance of community activism. His dedication and enthusiasm to get so many people involved has literally changed thousands of lives for the better.
We spoke with Adrian and asked him to share a bit of his story and experience here on our blog. Here is what he had to say.
I’m deeply honoured to accept this award on behalf of the Ping Pong-A-Thon team (staff, volunteers & event organisers) and every person who has participated in one of our events or sponsored a participant over the last six years. I feel very humbled by what we’ve achieved together and the way our movement has given everyday Aussies the opportunity to take action in a simple and fun way. I suspect this is just the beginning.
How it all got started
I went on the Jan 2010 Freedom Story (Formerly The SOLD Project) Exposure trip. This was a pivotal moment for me. I had been slowly getting interested in issues of trafficking/exploitation, (reading books, looking at websites etc), but this was the moment where I first took action to go and see for myself what was happening. My experiences on this trip were foundational in what has followed.
The next step in my journey with The Freedom Story was to become an advocate and financial supporter. I had an extra casual job that I used to raised a small amount per month for The Freedom Story and another trafficking/exploitation-focused organisation, Urban Light, which works with boys living and working in the red-light districts of Chiang Mai. While not significant by way of the $ amount, this was also significant for me as it was a decision to take action in a way I had capacity for at the time. I also had opportunities throughout 2010 to start sharing with groups of people what The Freedom Story was doing and inviting people to support the work.
One thing that struck me on the initial exposure trip was that men are largely responsible for the issue of trafficking and exploitation, yet are more often than not absent when it comes to being part of the solution. The key drivers of all of the organisations I encountered on this trip were fierce, passionate women. I also found this reflected in my advocacy efforts back in Australia – women were interested in learning more or taking action, yet often men seemed reluctant to engage.
With this in mind, I started the first Ping Pong-A-Thon fundraising/awareness event in Nov 2011. The concept was simple. Invite a group of men to join me in collectively playing table tennis for 24 consecutive hours. Fifteen men signed up to play. We encouraged them to invite their family and friends to sponsor their efforts. The event was a great success with $10,000 raised (which was distributed to The Freedom Story and Urban Light to further their work) and countless advocacy conversations began between men and people in their network about the issues of trafficking and exploitation. The event helped to engage men who had previously known little about the issue and many of whom had never been a justice advocate in any way before.
In Dec 2011/Jan 2012, I volunteered for a few weeks at The Freedom Story and Urban Light, which gave me a strong understanding of the work that was taking place on the ground. I became more familiar with The Freedom Story’s model, having seen it in action, and became even more convinced of the value of the work they were undertaking. At that time I was asked to become the Thailand Director at Urban Light. I worked in this role for two years which continued my steep learning curve regarding the issues of trafficking/exploitation.
I created the Ping Pong-A-Thon event as a one-off fundraiser, but because it worked so well, we ran it again in Nov 2012 with great success. When I finished in my role with Urban Light in July 2013, I saw that there was a significant need for advocacy and fundraising to support the ongoing work of organisations engaged in combating trafficking/exploitation. I returned to Australia and established The Pong as an annual campaign. From that point, I treated it as my job, living creatively in order to fund it – I’ve been a house-sitter for 3.5 years to keep my personal living expenses low. Since it started, everyday Australians have raised $750,000, ($110,000+ of which has been distributed to The Freedom Story). Our 2016 event engaged 2,000 people at 60 events Australia-wide and raised $350,000. The event works because it’s fun, community-rich and because we have been able to develop a network of event organisers who are passionate and growing in their understanding of the work of our partners and the wider issues. The event has been hosted by schools, churches, bars, sporting clubs or run in outdoor community spaces.
The Pong’s first international event (hosted by The Freedom Story & Nvader) takes place on February 5th in Bangkok. Ping Pong-A-Thon is setting up to host other international events in the second half of 2017.
On why he gives
I choose to give of my time, resources and energy to The Freedom Story and the wider cause because I recognise that
the only reason why I am not living in a situation of exploitation, where I am vulnerable to being trafficked, is that I am lucky.
Lucky to be born into circumstances where I’ve never had to go without the basics needed to survive. While not rich by Western standards, I recognise that I have everything I need and will be unlikely to ever find myself in a situation where I will be vulnerable to being trafficked or exploited. When you have an appreciation for how lucky you are and when you have personally encountered others in our world who find themselves with such a lack of options that they are forced to sell themselves or a child in order to survive, I believe you also have a responsibility to be a part of the solution for others, in whatever capacity you have.
It’s INSANE to me that we live in such an advanced, modern world, yet there are 45.8 million people living as slaves in the world (according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index). It’s OUTRAGEOUS that two children enter the sex trade somewhere in the world every minute of the day. When I first started hearing these statistics I was totally overwhelmed by the hugeness of the problem. But I made a decision to take action. The first step was learning about the issue, then going on the exposure trip, then becoming a financial supporter and advocate, then a volunteer and on it went from there. The important thing is to START, to ACT, no matter small and insignificant that first step might seem.
In the six years we have run The Pong, The Freedom Story has been our major partner.
This is largely because of The Freedom Story’s proven model, their clear focus on prevention, the impact observed over the last several years, their community development based approach and the quality of staff/leadership in the organisation. These factors have demonstrated that The Freedom Story has the capacity for significant growth.
The Ping Pong-A-Thon team doesn’t just see ourselves as simply a provider of funds. We visit The Freedom Story in Thailand on an annual basis, along with other partners, to observe the work being done and to help The Freedom Story’s key staff take time to reflect on what has been achieved, what they are learning and how we can further support their efforts. We also recognise that the awareness generated through our annual campaign enables The Freedom Story (and our other partners) to have a presence in Australia without needing an office or dedicated staff in the region.
When asked whether his experience with The Freedom Story has changed him personally
What a great question! Obviously the answer is a resounding YES!
I remember saying to a few friends before I went on the initial exposure trip that I knew the experience was going to ‘ruin me’ (in a good way). It was one of those pivotal moments in life that transition you into the next chapter of your life. Having grown up and lived in a middle class, Western, Christian environment all of my life, the last seven years has at times shaken and re-shaped my understanding of the world, of spirituality, of what it means to be human and of what it means to truly make a difference in the world. Journeying with The Freedom Story from their early days until now has taught me so much about developing/adapting your organisational model, community development, cultural sensitivity and having a focused vision (prevention, prevention, prevention!). The Freedom Story has given me the opportunity to learn how to become an advocate and establish a movement. On a more personal level, journeying with The Freedom Story has made me a more educated, more compassionate and more pro-active person.
To the team at The Freedom Story, it is such a privilege to be on this journey with you. Thank you for taking a chance on a random Aussie joining your exposure trip all those years ago.
Endless gratitude to Adrian for your commitment, your heart, your passion, and your generosity. Thank you also for sharing your story.
For those who would like to find out more about running an event (with proceeds supporting the work of The Freedom Story), please contact firstname.lastname@example.org