University students start Help Save the Next Girl chapter to raise awareness for missing persons

HSTNG founded in wake of Harrington case

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Students hope to soon officially launch a University chapter of Help Save the Next Girl, a national organization founded by Gil and Dan Harrington to raise awareness for missing persons and violence against women. They founded the organization in memory of their daughter, Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who was abducted and killed in Charlottesville in 2009.

Third-year Continuing and Professional Studies student Landon Wilkins and second-year Nursing student Heather Kesler spearheaded the effort for HSTNG in light of the recent disappearance of second-year College student Hannah Graham.

Wilkins said the interest was also sparked by other recent missing persons cases in Charlottesville and surrounding areas, including women who were never reported as missing.

“There was a girl missing the same day as Hannah Graham,” Wilkins said. “There are also the issues from 2012 of Dashad ‘Sage’ Smith, a transgender African American woman who went missing from the Charlottesville Amtrak station.”

Wilkins and Kesler are working to gain CIO status for HSTNG at the University. Student Council must vote on the chapter’s approval.

Wilkins and Kesler have already created plans to carry out the goals of the organization.

“We’ll have a few fundraising events and raise awareness for missing persons cases — just events to keep their names and faces out there,” Kesler said. “We’ll also have educational programs to help women protect themselves and let men know what they can do to help make the community a safer place.”

Ian Heflin, a director for the national organization, said these events differ between various chapters, and the University's chapter might well be different than the original chapter at Virginia Tech.

“We hold community events to raise awareness, and participate with law enforcement to promote their 'Rape, Aggression, Defense' courses,” Heflin said. “We hope that through education we can reduce the number of people who are passive bystanders and help save lives.”

Virginia Tech’s chapter of the organization sponsors Take Back the Night, in addition to seminars at local schools in coordination with the Virginia Tech police force. Chapter President Erica Grant, a junior at Virginia Tech, said these events are necessary to fulfill the vision of the organization.

“Every year, we chalk the bridge where Morgan Harrington was last seen with quotes and drawings of girls who are not forgotten,” Grant said. “People’s lives are at stake when you do nothing. Action is imperative.”

The organization has spread across high school and college campuses nationwide. Grant said there is stronger defense against abduction when multiple schools in an area develop their own chapters and means of awareness.

“It is especially important that U.Va. open a chapter with the recent abduction of Hannah Graham,” Grant said. “This is the time to take action. Don’t just sit around and wait for this to happen again.”

The University chapter sent its application to Student Council Sunday. Until the chapter receives CIO approval, Wilkins said students can become involved through other means.

“Students can help by donating to the Charlottesville police department things like food, water and emotional encouragement,” Wilkins said. “ They can also help by joining other sexual assault groups on grounds, like One in Four.”

Students must be proactive to help the cause, Grant said.

“Personal safety is of the utmost importance, but there is a flipside to all of this,” she said. “Everyone should be protective of the people around them. You should always be aware of your surroundings.”

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