By Brenna O’Donnell | [email protected]
Alexandria’s John Carlyle Square erupted in cheers on the muggy morning of Sept. 16. The crowd had gathered to welcome the Ride for the Missing, a group of more than 40 bicyclists who had traveled all the way from Utica, New York to Alexandria to raise awareness about the plight of missing and exploited children.
The riders were all volunteers passionate about the cause, including family members of missing persons, parents of formerly missing children and survivors of child abduction. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where the riders completed their six-day, 400-mile journey last week, has been headquartered in Alexandria since 1999. Founded in 1984 in Washington, D.C. after the high-profile abduction of Adam Walsh, the center is currently headquartered at 333 John Carlyle St. Today, about 200 child advocates, many of whom attended the event, including NCMEC President and CEO John F. Clark, are employed at the center.
“This ride is a symbol of hope and courage,” Clark said. “These volunteers are real difference-makers in the fight to keep kids safe.”
NCMEC’s Ride for the Missing first began in 1995 when Robert Wood, father of missing child Sara Ann Wood from Sauquoit, New York, came up with the idea to ride to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about his daughter’s case. Wood’s daughter had been riding her bike when she was abducted. At the time she was abducted, Sara was wearing teal and pink, colors reflected in the Ride for the Missing jerseys to this day. While Sara’s case has since been solved and her killer brought to justice, NCMEC still aims to bring awareness to missing child cases and spread messages of hope and prevention through this event.
“It’s all about hope. I am living proof that you can survive and you can thrive,” Sayeh Rivazfar, a said. On her chest, Rivazfar wore a photo of her younger sister, Sara Rivazfar, who did not survive their abduction. “There are victims and survivors who don’t have a voice. … We’re their voice, strength and hope, and we’ll continue to fight this fight and never give up hope.”
“It’s inspiring out there,” Fred Alber, chair of the Albany branch of the ride and father of a son who went missing at 16 and was later found safe, said. “All day long you’re laughing and crying – it’s just a range of emotions. It’s a physically exhilarating ride and it’s emotionally draining as well.”
The Ride for the Missing takes place every five years and makes several stops on the way from NCMEC’s office in Utica to its headquarters in Alexandria. At each stop, the volunteers take time to visit schools and speak about child safety. This year, the riders reached thousands of students with their message.
“We try to help kids understand how to stay safe while they’re out in the community as well as online,” Alber said. “When it comes to exploitation, it is immensely important that parents understand the dangers in the living room.”
According to NCMEC, the organization assisted law enforcement in 29,782 cases of missing children in 2020. NCMEC reports a recovery rate of 92%, however, while the COVID-19 pandemic affected every aspect of life, NCMEC saw a troubling trend. In the year 2020 alone, reports of the online enticement of minors skyrocketed by 97.5%. To combat this issue, NCMEC operates the CyberTipline, a national mechanism where electronic service providers and members of the public can report suspected instances of online enticement or abuse.
“It’s key for the public to understand that we are riding on the bikes to raise awareness, but we also need them to participate in helping us achieve our purpose,” Rivazfar said. “If you see something, say something.”
One of the parents at the welcome event was Augusto Frisancho, whose three sons, Raymi, Amaru and Ork’o have been missing since August 2010 after their mother abducted them and took them to Slovakia.
“The most important thing I can say to parents is to be in the lives of your children,” Frisancho said. “Don’t use your children as weapons in the fight between you and a spouse.”
Frisancho carried a photo of his three sons from before they disappeared, explaining that family abductions are often misunderstood but are just as heartbreaking as any case of a missing child. Frisancho said he doesn’t like to keep track of how old his sons would be today. Instead, he remembers them as they were in the photo he carried at the welcome event, as if they are still 11, 7 and 5.
After the 40 cyclists settled outside NCMEC headquarters on John Carlyle Street, Edward Suk, executive director of NCMEC’s New York office, spoke to the crowd of tired but inspired riders.
“We never stop looking for our missing children, and we never stop taking care of exploited children,” Suk said. “We appreciate all your hard work as we continue making our children safer.”
“One child at a time,” the crowd called back.
For child safety tips and to learn more about how to help missing and exploited children, visit missingkids.org. Visit the attached links for more information on three local missing children, Digna Alvarado Ortez, Yuan Wang and Julian Zacharia.