On July 27, 1981, a little 6 year old boy is with his mother, shopping at a Sears department store in Florida. He spots some teenage boys playing at a nearby video game stand, and gets excited. He turns to his mom, “Could I watch them?” His mom agrees, and adds, “I'm going right over here to the lamp department.” “Okay, Mommy, I know where that is,” he says and skips off. Shortly after, a security guard sends the teenagers out because of their unruly behavior. The little boy is sent out with them. He is too timid to explain that he’s not with the teenagers and that his mom is still shopping at the store. As he stands outside, the teens begin to drift away, and the little boy is alone and unsure of what to do. A man appears out of the shadows, promising him candy and toys if he comes over to his car. The little boy, thrilled by the prospect of treats, approaches the man’s car. As soon as the boy is inside, the man begins to drive. Two weeks later, the child's severed head is found 120 miles away, in a canal.
The boy in the story was Adam Walsh, the only child of Reve and John Walsh. The day they came to know that their son was brutally murdered was also the day that all seemed lost. John Walsh's rage fueled a desperate need for revenge on the kidnapper, who was yet to be found. Later, he plunged into depression and even considered suicide. He could no longer work. He lost his dream project, a $26 million hotel he was building. His house went into foreclosure. Many in his shoes would be paralyzed by their grief. But John Walsh felt his grief and anger, and yet did something different.
Four days after his son’s funeral, John Walsh created the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children, a place to help other families of missing children. He also helped pass Missing Children’s Assistance Act. This led him to co-found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children along with Ernie Allen and former President Ronald Reagan; the powerful organization helped find more than 183,000 missing children.
In his quest to make our world a safer place, John left his hotel business and became the host of a TV show - 'America’s Most Wanted'. Once he began working on this show, he realized that the law enforcement he held responsible for not finding his son, lacked the funding to do their jobs properly. He then developed a partnership with many organizations he struggled with in the past including the police department. Working together, 'America's Most Wanted' brought photos and information about fugitives to people’s living rooms through TV and helped nab more than 1,200 criminals globally. He is now working with CNN to develop 'World's Most Wanted'.
John Walsh also advocated for the Amber Alert Network because he realized that not enough people had been looking for Adam, and he had difficulty spreading awareness about his own son’s kidnapping. The Amber Alert System uses TV, radio, electronic billboards, as well as emergency broadcast systems to find kidnapped children. Furthermore, he established fingerprinting programs, made sure security was sufficient at schools, put faces of missing children on milk cartons, and verified that missing persons units were present at all major police offices. In addition, he convinced the government to provide a national center, database and toll-free line devoted to missing children. John Walsh was thus able to use his own experience to identify problems with the process of finding missing kids and helped forge solutions.
I wondered however: how was John Walsh able to overcome his overwhelming sense of devastation and accomplish all this? His deep love for his son and a burning desire not to have his son's death be in vain gave him the strength to make sure that others aren't hurt the way his family was. By his life and his work he taught the world that in order to overcome a devastating tragedy, find a cause that one cares about deeply. Deeply enough to want to do something about it despite ones own heart break. This will provide the power, strength and drive to surmount ones pain for that greater cause.
27 years later, when his son's killer was finally identified, John Walsh no longer wanted revenge. He was simply grateful for answers and some sense of closure. He taught us that life isn't over when horrible tragedies befall us. He has successfully transformed his tremendous grief and rage into a powerful motivation to make our world a better place.
I shared this story to raise awareness of the power of one person. Everyone can make a difference, including you. I hope you remember the wonderful work of John Walsh. Please keep in mind the safety rules our parents all taught us! If you can, maybe consider donating some money to a few nonprofit organizations protecting children, to make sure that kids all over the world can stay safe. :)