About 100 people marched through the streets of Waynesville to raise awareness against human trafficking the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 22.
Children accompanied parents through the late-summer heat from Waynesville Recreation Park, up West Marshall Street to North Main Street and onto the front lawn of the historic courthouse.
People hoisted hand-written signs condemning human and child trafficking, some using the hashtag #saveourchildren, which has gained national traction on social media in recent weeks.
“We are here today because we have a real problem,” said march organizer Misty Pooler from the courthouse steps. “If we have a march, if you’re a momma, you’re a daddy, you should be out here screaming for your babies.”
Pooler displayed a poster with four football stadiums on it to illustrate the number of children who are reported missing in the United States each year.
In 2019, the FBI received more than 420,000 reports of missing children, according to data from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a national resource center for information on the issue.
While a vast majority of children who are reported missing return home safely, some never do. Of almost 26,300 runaways reported to the NCMEC in 2019, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking, according to the center’s website.
Pooler introduced Andy Ledford, CEO of Operation Wolf Eyes, which runs under a Hawaii-based nonprofit that is expanding to Western North Carolina.
“Operation Wolf Eyes is an organization that we just formed up at the end of July to help battle and bring awareness to human trafficking here in North Carolina,” Ledford said prior to the march. “A lot of people are in doubt that it’s here.”
Ledford said he worked in the Marine Corps helping U.S. Border Patrol agents catch human traffickers coming into the country, and has seen cases of human trafficking occurring in Haywood County since he moved back to the area.
“I seen it firsthand, I seen the amount of people being brought in,” Ledford said to the crowd. “We are the interstate highway for people to run human trafficking.”
A candlelit moment of silence was held in the memory of Cannon Hinnant — a 5-year-old who was fatally shot in his yard in Wilson, N.C., on Aug. 9 — as well as all victims of human trafficking.
Following the silence, someone read the Lord’s Prayer. The procession marched back to Waynesville Recreation Park, chanting along the way.
“Why do we march? To save our children,” the group said. “What is it time to do? Get loud.”
Ledford called for donations to help raise $60,000 for a local movement called Operation Wolf Eyes. The movement would build a team of 50 people to combat human trafficking locally, Ledford said to the assemblage.
Following the march, Ledford said Operation Wolf Eyes plans to operate under a nonprofit called King of Kings Childrens Home, which was started by his brother-in-law in Hawaii. The King of Kings nonprofit is in the process of transferring to North Carolina nonprofit status, but has been delayed by COVID-19, Ledford said.
The $60,000 startup campaign will fund one year of rent at a 12,000-square-foot Bethel building, which will house classrooms and conference rooms, plus clothes and inventory used to care for victims, while allowing space for other similarly focused organizations to work alongside and in collaboration with Operation Wolf Eyes, Ledford said.
Ledford said there will be a board of directors, as well as a board of ambassadors for the nonprofit once it is properly up and running.
“The biggest thing is being aware that the situation in Western North Carolina is a true situation,” Ledford said. “There is evil out in the world, and it is here in the mountains.”