Former child slave presented with Ames award



Lissandra Villa

James Kofi Annan, a former child slave from Ghana, was presented with the 40th Outstanding Contribution to the Welfare of Children and Youth Award, a local Ames award.

This award, presented to him on Thursday night, is an honor previously bestowed to the likes of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, said George Belitsos, founder and CEO emeritus of Youth and Shelter Services, Inc.

Annan was chosen in recognition of his role in helping to stop global human trafficking, which he has done through Challenging Heights, his organization to rescue children from slavery in Ghana.

“James has turned his scars into stars,” Belitsos said as he presented the award. “We are very privileged to have you here.”

Annan was sold as a slave at age six by his father. For years, he worked in Lake Volta diving and untangling nets.

“No vacation, no day off,” Annan said during his lecture at the Great Hall of the Memorial Union. “Every time I made a mistake, I was tortured.”

He escaped as a teenager and went on to get an education, which led him to a job in banking. Once he had secured an education and a good job, Annan said he wanted to help others that had not managed to escape like he had.

“I had an obligation to tell the story of those children,” Annan said.

Annan urged his audience to educate itself on issues to help put an end to them.

Mentioning a lack of counseling, medical care and other resources after his escape from slavery, Annan told the audience his hope was to provide the children Challenging Heights rescues with the services he did not get.

While this was Annan’s first trip to Ames, it was not his first trip to Iowa; Annan had previously received an award from Grinnell College for his work.

“I don’t think this is his last time coming to Ames,” Belitsos said.

Some Ames community members have already travelled to the Challenging Heights school.

Mark Hamilton, an Ames resident, has gone three times and is planning another trip to Ghana in the spring.

“There was not a book in sight,” Hamilton said about his first trip. That led to friends of Challenging Heights creating a library and sending 8,000 books over, he said.

Network Against Human Trafficking, Central Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking, Youth and Shelter Services and Rotary Club of Ames presented Annan with the award.

Approximately 280 community members attended the lecture.

“He’s a wonderful man,” said Joshua Byrne, president of the student chapter of NAHT, about Annan. “I love the matter-of-fact way that he expresses himself.”