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Emerald Coast Humanity Outreach Takes Ownership of our Kids
ECHO was founded through the power of prayer. Santiago Rodriguez, an outreach pastor for Destiny Worship Center in Destin was struck by a young woman’s story about the existence of human trafficking in the small, coastal town during a meeting at the center two years ago.
“To God, every human being is the same worth. I had to further that thought,” said Rodriguez, who has a young daughter. He was concerned local young women could be at risk. Starting with a prayer group, he called upon volunteers from area churches to meet in January 2011 at Grace Lutheran Church in Destin. Rodriguez also met with law enforcement authorities in Okaloosa County.
The result was Emerald Coast Humanity Outreach (ECHO), a not-for-profit group of concerned citizens working with law enforcement to boost awareness and reporting of suspicious human trafficking situations. Since 2012, members have trained teachers, social workers, healthcare providers and businesses to recognize the signs and report what they suspect or see to law enforcement.
“This is not like a church thing or one group. It’s about communities knowing and taking ownership of their kids,” said Peggy Morgan, president of ECHO. Outreach plans include partnering with other like-minded groups like Called2Rescue based in Pensacola and presentations to schools. ECHO recently visited South Walton and Freeport High schools in Walton County.
“It’s not a great topic, but ECHO opened their eyes that this is happening in our world. It can happen here in Freeport just as well as a large city,” said Kim Caudill, guidance aide for Freeport High School, who attended the student body presentation. “They encouraged students to seek help from within the school or a friend if they are concerned.”
During Spring Break 2013, ECHO’s awareness campaign included visits to every hotel along Interstate 10 in Okaloosa County and towns including Crestview, DeFuniak Springs, Destin and Niceville.
“Let’s teach people how to see and teach people how to hear,” said Morgan. “We need to let them [human traffickers] know that we know they are here.” — Martha J. LaGuardia-Kotite
Cover Story, Emerald Coast Magazine, August 2013