Driving Across the Globe to Fight Child Trafficking

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It wasn’t until Renée Brinkerhoff’s last of four children departed for college that her life changed forever.

“At the age of 55, I had a realization,” Ms. Brinkerhoff said. It was reassuringly simple and dauntingly complex: “One day, I’m going to race a car.”

She chose road rallying; competing on a racetrack held little interest. Road rallies, however, would bring her through countless landscapes with captivating scenery. She was sold. Still, she was a novice, and she would have to overcome huge obstacles, “of which fear was primary,” she said.

So in 2013, she founded Valkyrie Racing with one chief goal: to break barriers for women. The name “Valkyrie” comes from Norse mythology, where women warriors saved the worthy from the field of battle and restored their life in Valhalla. Ms. Brinkerhoff thinks of them as warriors who are strong yet compassionate.

She hardly started small, beginning her racing career in La Carrera Panamericana, a treacherous 2,000-mile road rally across Mexico considered one of the most dangerous in the world. She proved she was a natural, too, reaching the podium in her first try, and on subsequent entries, too.

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Credit…Rene Castillejos

Her ambitions were larger still. “We found we had a ‘voice’, though small,” said Ms. Brinkerhoff, who is now 64 and lives in Colorado. “People were listening to our unique story. We thought if we did something on a bigger scale, a global scale, we could potentially have a bigger voice. That was the impetus for Project 356 World Rally Tour.”

Her tour would encompass six rallies and one ultimate challenge: a drive on every continent, all while piloting one vehicle — her classic Porsche 356, for which she named the project.

And for her project, she chose the most challenging races on each continent. Beijing to Paris (otherwise known as Peking to Paris): crossing so many countries and time zones. The East African Safari Classic: the most difficult off-tarmac classic car rally in the world. Each rally has its unique challenges; she wanted to be a groundbreaking part with each of them.

When she started Project 356, Ms. Brinkerhoff also saw the event as a way to give back. “At this same time, we started our philanthropic arm, Valkyrie Gives,” she said. “The idea was to use our racing as a platform to do something about child trafficking worldwide.”

“The mission to fight child trafficking found me, I didn’t choose it,” she added. A few critical coincidences led her to this cause. “It became apparent to me I was supposed to do everything I could to fight for these children.”

By chance, Ms. Brinkerhoff met an F.B.I. agent whose job was to track down peddlers of child pornography. In another chance encounter, she saw a man on an airport bus viewing an illicit image of a young child on his phone.

“I do not believe in coincidence, and knew I was being told to do something about this,” she said. “I began researching this crime and learned child pornography fuels child trafficking and that this was a massive global problem.”

Credit…John Bennie

Her adventurous spirit may owe something to her childhood. Her early years were split between a small beach town in Southern California and also Southeast Asia during the height of the Cold War. She and her family lived in Hong Kong during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and they lived in Laos at the end of the Vietnam War.

To date, Ms. Brinkerhoff has rallied her way through all but one major challenge. She has competed in 17 countries on six continents. She will soon face her most difficult endeavor — Antarctica, where she and her team will race, alone, against extreme elements. The plan is to cover 356 miles on ice, and if successful, notch a land speed record on a blue ice runway at Union Glacier. Once finished, Ms. Brinkerhoff will have raced nearly 20,000 miles.

Ms. Brinkerhoff and team have had many challenges along the way. Corrupt custom agents held the Porsche and its parts until they bribed their way past. Accidents and broken parts, like a crash at the 2015 Carrera Panamericana race, kept them on their toes. Delays crossing oceans and new rally regulations tested their patience.

More pedestrian issues posed hurdles, as well, like racing at elevations of up to 16,000 feet and competing in new terrain that was different than what they had prepared for. The tour pushed their skills beyond capacity. Even language barriers caused hiccups.

Toughest among their challenges was the East African Safari Classic late last year across Kenya and Tanzania. “It was the rainiest season in 40 years and the roads, already chosen for their difficulty, were more treacherous than planned,” said Ms. Brinkerhoff, who was a novice again in this kind of terrain. Deep sand, thick mud and treacherous water crossings made it difficult for all competitors.

Adding to the adversity, the front right steering arm wasn’t holding up. It couldn’t withstand the severe terrain and repeatedly failed. Eventually, the issue was corrected and Ms. Brinkerhoff and her navigator crossed the finish line.

To date, Valkyrie Gives has raised approximately $200,000 to help fight child trafficking. All donations have gone directly to charitable organizations around the world: Mexico, Australia, Peru, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Netherlands, Kenya, Cambodia, Thailand and the United States.

Ms. Brinkerhoff said she had also “participated in undercover operations to gather evidence for law enforcement to arrest and prosecute traffickers.” She once spent two weeks in Southeast Asia working with the Exodus Road, a nonprofit organization with seven offices worldwide and a staff of 72 that finds and frees victims of trafficking. Since the group’s inception, it has rescued more than 1,500 victims and aided in the arrest of 600 traffickers and pedophiles, it says.

Matt Parker, an Exodus Road co-founder and the acting chief executive, met Ms. Brinkerhoff several years ago at his Colorado Springs office. “She came to my office and once I heard her remarkable story, we began a working relationship,” he said.

“Renée is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, and the world is full of people who want to see trafficking end,” Mr. Parker added. “But I wish it was full of people like Renée who will actually do something about it.”

Credit…John Bennie

In November, before the rally in East Africa, Ms. Brinkerhoff and her team arrived early to meet with a group they had supported in Kenya. “When we go to a country to race,” she said, “we try to visit the child trafficking charity we have chosen for support.”

The charity this time was Awareness Against Human Trafficking, and Sophie Otiende, the program consultant, shared a story about two young girls who had tried to commit suicide just a night before. “They were waiting to be repatriated to their country,” Ms. Otiende told the group. “They were losing hope of ever returning home.”

The girls wouldn’t be treated without making a cash prepayment to the hospital. The Valkyrie Gives foundation immediately donated the funds to get the girls admitted to the hospital.

The rallies are thrilling, Ms. Brinkerhoff said, but making a difference for children is the most rewarding. “The memories of the children around the world that we have been blessed to touch and their innocent faces will forever be in our minds and hearts,” she said.

“Since I started racing, I have always believed it was what I was being called to do,” she added. “Faith has allowed me to push through the many fears I’ve faced.”

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