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Volunteers help find 21 missing Las Vegas Valley children

Twenty-one missing children have been found safe, thanks to the efforts of law enforcement, government agencies, nonprofits, businesses and community volunteers during The Big Search last month.

The mission of The Big Search — which takes place in Las Vegas during Super Bowl week — is “to find and save missing and exploited children.”

“It’s a pretty big operation,” said Michael Bartel, executive director and president of FREE International, the nonprofit that created and spearheads the operation, now in its 15th year. “It’s volunteer-heavy. It’s man-hour heavy, as far as finding out where these kids might be… You can see a lot done in a short amount of time.”

Hundreds of volunteers received booklets with information about 35 missing and vulnerable children, age 12 to 18, and then distributed them throughout organizations in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson.

“Once you go into a business, now you’re force multiplying, now you’re getting more eyeballs,” Bartel said. “When you get the various sectors of the community involved… law enforcement, health care, the business community, the faith community, nonprofits, all of what you all know together makes a pretty big whole.”

Twenty-one of the 35 children were found, most of them during the week of The Big Search, after which services were provided to the victims and families.

“The bulk of them happened over the course of that full week Monday through Saturday,” Bartel said. “Where we find them is all across the board. Some of them are being trafficked (and) we’ve got a significant amount of homeless kids in the city. All of them are vulnerable or exploited.”

In addition to the volunteers, the Nevada State Police, the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, the Clark County School District Police Department, the Clark County Department of Family Services and Nevada Child Seekers also took part in the initiative.

“This was a huge success through our agency’s eyes,” Nevada State Trooper Ashlee Wellman said. “We were so passionate about it, and really feel like we made a difference in our community… Our team consisted of five troopers, two lieutenants, and one sergeant… Every time there was a tip, they followed it through.”

“You can’t find what you’re not looking for,” Bartel added. “(The operations) are always very successful, because they’re community-involvement heavy… We’re obviously very excited about a community that is willing to jump in and search for their missing and vulnerable kids.”

To learn more about The Big Search, click here.

This story has been updated to correct the misspelling of Ashlee Wellman’s last name.

Contact Justin Razavi at jrazavi@reviewjournal.com. Follow @justin_razavi on Twitter.

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