September 30, 2016

Stories of hope and loss spin forward in Ride for Missing Children

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
ride for missing and exploited children
Caption: Dave Floyd, a teacher at Forts Ferry Elementary School and a member of the North Colonie Teachers Association, gets high-fives and hugs from his students during the annual Capital Region Ride for Missing Children. Photo by Ryan Carll/RAC Illustrations.

Do you ever take a second look at those fliers in your mailbox, usually stuffed amongst a bunch of advertisements that say "HAVE YOU SEEN ME?" Below the headline are photos of missing children.

Someone in Texas took the time to look at those photos. And noticed a boy who looked familiar.  His real name was Sam Fastow, and he had been kidnapped eight and a half months earlier at age 10 from New Jersey. He was reunited with his mother, Abby Potash, who flew to Texas in 1998 with a police officer to claim her son.

"That's why posters are so great," said Potash, who joined family members of missing children in caravan following bicyclists pedaling 100 miles in the Capital District Ride for Missing Children today. The event raises money for posters of missing and exploited children, and helps fund school assemblies on safety through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Potash is a living witness to how life changes in a flash; how you survive; and how you ask for help. She begged, borrowed and blasted her way to help while her son went missing after being taken by his father. Recovery from the abduction was tough for both her and her son, who was torn from home, friends and school and whose name had been changed. She started getting involved in helping others in this situation, and by 2004 she began working for NCMEC. Yesterday, she drove from the Washington, D.C. area to tell people her story and share thanks with the riders. She and her son give presentations to law enforcement and therapists as part of the volunteer Team HOPE for NCMEC. And six months ago, he, too, began working for NCMEC.

Today the bicyclists paid a silent morning tribute in a ride-by at NYSUT headquarters in Latham, where wreaths were set out and posters were held up by family members with the names of their missing relatives from throughout the region. The names: Suzanne Lyall; Audrey May Herron; Craig Frear; Colin Gillis; Jaliek Rainwalker; George LaForest; and Tammi McCormack.

Bicyclists clutched their hearts and blew kisses to the family members as they cycled by them. Wearing helmets and pink and teal "Ride for the Missing" shirts, they pedaled away into the cool morning air. They still had about a 75- mileride to go.

The ride raises money for posters and for school assemblies sponsored by the NCMEC to educate students about safety. In the Capital Region alone, 150 assemblies were held in the past year. That's about 100,000 children who learned about personal and online safety.

Ed Suk, executive director of the Rochester Regional Office of the NCMEC said 18,000 children went missing in New York last year, compared to 21,000 the previous year. He believes better identification practices, which includes electronic child fingerprinting, and better prevention are helping to reduce that staggering number.

"Go bikers go!" proclaimed posters at Forts Ferry Elementary School, where children gathered to cheer the riders. Last week they had attended an assembly and learned t how to check with a trusted adult before going anywhere; how to say no, and then tell an adult when approached by a stranger; and how to stay with a buddy.

The little children screamed and pumped fists as their hero, first grade teacher David Floyd, got off his bike and greeted the hundreds of children gathered in a semi-circular driveway outside the school. These are the students who brought in change and donated $300 toward his ride.

"Bikers rock!" "Go, Go, Go!" and "Way to go, Mr. Floyd! You Got This!" were today's headlines on the students posters. Floyd is a member of the North Colonie Teachers Association.

Each of the 46 bikers in today's ride stopped pedaling and greeted the children.

"They're so excited," said Wendy Ashline, kindergarten teaching assistant and member of the North Colonie TA. "One of the children said 'This is the best day ever!'"

Kindergarten teachers Krista McMillen, Deanna Morse, and Gretchen Mahan were asked about whether or not it is difficult to explain to five-year-olds the concept of missing children.

"We tell them there are some children who are lost; we don't scare them. We talk about safety," said McMillen.

Katie Herron was a year younger than these kindergartners when her mom, Audrey May Herron, went missing after leaving her nursing job in 2002. Katie greeted the youngsters today, smiling at their upturned faces. It was not hard to picture her at their age.

"It's kind of amazing," she said earlier. "It's good to know she's not forgotten."

Her sister Sonsi, who was 10 when Herron went missing, said "It helps to hear other people's stories." She is now a nurse – like her mom.

Audrey's sister-in-law, Stacy Herron Wozniak, rides in the Utica ride and helped to start the Albany ride, now in its ninth year. She has pedaled in it every year except one, when she was pregnant. As a speech and language teacher in Castleton Elementary School and a member of the Schodack Faculty Association, she joins the 6-7 teachers who are among the 45-50 riders in the Capital Region event.

She spent a lot of time with Audrey's children, her nieces, during the ordeal. She remembers Sonsi coming out with a piggy bank and offering her own money to law enforcement officers to help find her mommy.

The children who donated to the cause today are following in her footsteps.

Rides have also been held again this year in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and Utica – the oldest ride at 20 years.

"These rides are a big footprint," said Suk. In all of the U.S., NCMEC has four regional offices, and one is in New York, which also has three satellite offices.

"We work really hard to have grassroots service delivery," said Suk. NCMEC helps families, law enforcement and schools.

Sexual trafficking of young and adolescent girls and boys is often related to their disappearance. They are advertised and "sold" as escorts, models and dates. Drugs and violence are often used to trap or scare them, along with threat of exposure. Exploitation can happen if a child is taken, or even if they are living at home.

"It's horrendous," he said. "Sex trafficking is an issue finally getting some much needed attention. It's been buried a long time."

Part of NCMEC's program is a cyber tip line. The organization also has teams of volunteers and professionals.

"We get called out a lot. We can roll within hours to help local law enforcement," he said.

The organization's Family Advocacy Division provides resources and training for therapists to help them understand the needs of parents and children in missing and recovered cases.

For the New York offices, a new style of fundraiser will be held in October in Buffalo, Saratoga and Rochester in the form of gourmet food events. Go to www.dishitout.org to learn about the celebrity chef evenings.

Today's ride featured stops at four elementary schools, a ride-through at the sprawling Shenendehowa campus, and a pre-school. An opening ceremony was held at the University at Albany and a closing ceremony was scheduled for 6 p.m. at the New York State Museum in Albany.