Ping-pong: the answer to modern slavery?

Seven-year-old Adley Pekan was at a church event when he noticed a gathering at the back of the church. He approached, and what he saw changed his life.

They were playing ping-pong. Or table tennis. You choose.

The group of young adults invited Adley to an upcoming event, where he would become the youngest player ever in a Ping-Pong-A-Thon – a table tennis event where paddles are wielded as the unlikeliest of weapons to defeat modern-day slavery.

Chief Relationship Officer of Ping-Pong-A-Thon Matt Maudlin says ‘the Pong’ deliberately contrasts the gravity of the topic with the levity of their approach. Nothing is lighter, more fun or easier to play than ping-pong; while nothing is heavier, more sombre or harder to stomach than human trafficking. With almost $4 million raised since 2011, the Pong’s approach is clearly working.

“Surely it’s not happening in Australia, right? Wrong.”

Long before the recent blockbuster film Sound of Freedom brought the issue into the public eye, the Pong was working with charity partners to promote education and prevention, rescue and aftercare, and meaningful, systemic legal change. Unlike most fundraising efforts, Matt says, “When somebody Pongs and raises dollars, they’re doing it all.”

Matt Maudlin, Chief Relationship Officer of Ping-Pong-A-Thon

Matt Maudlin, Chief Relationship Officer of Ping-Pong-A-Thon

You, like me, might be surprised to learn that modern-day slavery is not just a problem ‘out there’.

“Surely it’s not happening in Australia,” Matt often hears, “because we’re Western, we’re advanced. It can’t be happening, right? Wrong. It’s happening.” Not only is the number of slaves worldwide double the population of Australia (over 50 million and rising), but there are also humans being trafficked in and around our country.

Adley and Annie’s stories

When young Adley heard about the conditions of modern-day slavery, especially for children, he was determined to help.

“If I get to play sport and spend time with friends and family and go to school and all these great things, why shouldn’t kids around the world get to do that as well? That became my reason for doing it: to try and give other kids like me, who didn’t have these opportunities and were being kept in really bad conditions, a chance to live a life of freedom,” says Adley, now 16. “And that’s grown on me ever since.”

At 11, Adley became the Pong’s youngest event organiser, setting up a Ping-Pong-A-Thon, along with a bouncy house, a sausage sizzle and cake stalls at his local church.

Adley Pekan lines up a serve at a Ping-Pong-A-Thon event.

At 12, he was invited to share his story as a guest speaker at the inaugural Ping-Pong-A-Thon conference in Melbourne. Adley met people there from Thailand and Cambodia, and heard people who had been freed from slavery sharing their stories. “That was really eye-opening for me,” he recalls.

One such person was Annie*.

Matt met Annie while visiting a partner organisation, Freedom Story, in Thailand in 2022. Annie (then about 13) thanked him via an interpreter for the Pong. Matt reassured her that his vocation was a privilege. But Annie was adamant, insisting that he thank his team and his partners in Australia.

“Because of the Pong dollars raised, [through Freedom Story] students are able to be kept in primary school and high school, through to university,” Matt explains. “They’re taught what happens when the trafficker knocks on your door; they’re taught about their human rights; they’re taught simple, better ways of farming to take back to their family. And they’re taught, ‘You are at risk. You are supported because you are some of the most vulnerable people.’

“So this 13-year-old girl in front of me fully recognises that, but for the work of the Pong – but for a thousand Australians who come together to Pong each year – she could be quite possibly in a bar in Bangkok, being prostituted. And there is a direct correlation between what Adley does when he Pongs and that girl looking me in the eye, saying, ‘Thank people for the freedom I now enjoy.'”

“We believe what the Bible says: that every single person is fearfully and wonderfully made.” – Matt Maudlin

To set the captives free

For both Adley and Matt, the desire to see victims of slavery freed is fuelled by their Christian faith. But both welcome the involvement of anyone who wants to make a difference.

On one hand, “It’s not just a Christian thing,” Adley explains. “Anyone can fight against slavery.” On the other, he says the reason he has been so committed to the cause is because God has called him into it.

Similarly, Matt is clear, “We never want to prohibit anybody from Ponging, because the issue of slavery and trafficking is not just a Christian issue; it’s a mankind, personkind issue.”

Children helped through Ping-Pong-A-Thon.

Two of the children helped by the Pong through Ping-Pong-A-Thon events.

But Matt continues, “In terms of the people who work in Pong – our team and our board – are we all church-going, Bible-believing Christians? Yes, we absolutely are. Our faith inspires us to do what we do because we believe what the Bible says: that every single person is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ We believe that every person should live a life that is free.”

Matt notes that “the meat and potatoes of the Pong movement is churches” and, fascinatingly, says he is “yet to find an organisation working in the anti-trafficking, anti-slavery space that does not at least have its roots or its origin in Christian belief. To this point, I haven’t found one, and that’s telling to me.”

“As Christians we should be challenged by this issue,” he goes on, “That’s where I think [Sound of Freedom] has done a great service.”

Matt acknowledges that the movie’s depiction of trafficking and slavery is ‘Hollywood’ and ‘a bit sensational’, but celebrates the awareness it has generated, and says “it does focus well on the significance of one person making a difference in the life of one person.”

“As Christians we should be challenged by this issue.” – Matt Maudlin

Beating slavery one bite at a time

How do you eat an elephant?

In the same way, Matt says the only way to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormous issue of modern-day slavery is “to take one bite at a time”.

“We’re not naive,” he continues. “We’re not for a moment pretending that $4 million completely changes slavery around the world. But we always say that, as an individual, I can’t do everything, but I can do something. And my something just might be everything to one individual.”

“I’m going to do everything I can for as long as I can.” – Adley Pekan

Adley’s latest bite at the elephant of slavery was an event he organised at his school, Wesley College in Western Australia. He says the event, although “a logistical challenge” to organise through the school, was “a great way to get everyone playing and connected”, celebrating the chance to spread awareness and raise money with an activity that a lot of young adults and youth groups already spend time doing.

Next year will be Adley’s 10th involved with the Pong, and he has no plans to give it up any time soon. “It’s definitely just a part of my life now,” he says. “I’m going to do everything I can for as long as I can.”

How you can fight slavery and human trafficking

“Not many people are aware of the problem of slavery,” Adley laments. “It’s not the type of story that’s well known, but when people do hear it and it resonates with them, they do really get involved.”

Growing awareness means more and more people are confronted with the tragedy of human trafficking and slavery. Many of us didn’t know, but now we do. So now is our chance to do something about it.

Here are two ways you can help:

1. Donate to fight slavery and human trafficking through Adley’s Ping-Pong-A-Thon fundraising page.

Donations enable training, counselling, trial fees, home visits, education and, most amazingly, redeem lives from slavery.

2. Host a Ping-Pong-A-Thon at your local church, youth group, workplace, school, pub or at home.

The Pong will provide materials and guidance; all you need are people, a venue and a desire to make a difference.

Your something just might be everything to one individual.

*Name changed for privacy.