Aniah’s Soul Lives On, In ‘Aniah’s Heart,’ And Her Mom’s Resolve
It is reasonable to assume that most parents have an innate instinct to fight for their children. But, for UFC fighter Walt Harris and his wife Angela, fighting for their daughter Aniah Blanchard isn't only instinctual, it is the essence of how they live their lives. “Fighting for Aniah” is the rallying cry that has gotten the Harris family through the darkest and most challenging time in their life.
A little over a year ago, I was watching ESPN and having my morning coffee. That morning, viewers were made aware of the tragedy that befell the Harris family. According to the “SC Featured” episode, led by reporter Tom Rinaldi, on October 23, 2019, 19-year-old Aniah, a student at Auburn University, traveled back to her dorm after visiting her family.
Later that night, Aniah's roommate notified the Harris family that Aniah hadn't returned to her room. Upon being told that Aniah was missing, Angela and Walt went to look for their daughter.
As word got out that Aniah was missing, numerous law enforcement agencies, volunteers, friends, and the UFC community would join the Harrises and help them look for their daughter.
On November 8, Ibraheem Yazeed, a 29-year-old native of Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested and charged for the kidnapping and murder of Aniah Blanchard. At the time, Yazeed was out on bond for multiple counts to including attempted murder.
My wife and I anxiously watched the special without uttering a word to each other. We were sad for the family, angry at Yazeed, and horrified for our three daughters, who were around Aniah's age. However, we watched optimistically, hoping that Aniah would be found alive.
Unfortunately, hope turned into grief when we learned on November 25, 2019, that Aniah's remains were found in a wooded area just off the road between Auburn and Montgomery.
Aniah's death left a void in the hearts of everyone that knew her, especially her parents. The Harris’ have kept her memory alive by telling her story and establishing a nonprofit organization called “Aniah's Heart.”
After Aniah's death, state representatives proposed a bill to change the current bond law, and name the law after Aniah. If approved, “Aniah's Law” will grant judges the authority to deny bail for offenders that have been accused of a violent crime. Until then, judges could only deny bonds if a person is facing charges of capital murder.
I reached out to Aniah's mother, Angela Harris. I asked her if she would be willing to talk to me about Aniah's law and her nonprofit organization Aniah's heart. She instantly agreed, and we set a date for the interview.
The date of the interview arrived, and I nervously waited for the Zoom meeting to connect. Angela appears, and is looking in the rearview mirror of her car haphazardly fixing her hair with her fingers. Her forehead is shining with what seems to be droplets of sweat. She looks and smiles at the camera and proceeds to tell me in a heavy southern drawl that she was working out. In addition to being a mother, CEO of “Aniah's Heart,” and a part-time nurse, Angela is also training as a boxer.
She wasn't having a particularly good day, she told me. She almost didn't make it to the gym. Her close friend and a former employee of the UFC, Suzy Friton, had just passed away after battling her second bout with cancer. Mrs. Harris pushed through her grief and went to the gym, because she knew it would be a good grief and stress relief. For Angela Harris, boxing has not only become an outlet to channel her emotion, but it also boosts the impact of the family mantra, “Fighting for Aniah.”
“I fight for Aniah every day!” says the novice pugilist. Fighting is the covalent bond that holds this family together after Aniah's death. “Our family fights every day. We fight every day and in every way. We fight for our life, and we fight for justice. My husband is a fighter (Walt Harris is a heavyweight MMA fighter in the UFC), and if my husband is fighting in every way, I'm going to fight in every way. I was never a fan of jiu-jitsu, but I love boxing. So, I gave boxing a try, and I love it. And now I'm physically fighting for Aniah.”
I ask Mrs. Harris to describe to our readers what kind of person was Aniah, and what type of personality did she have?
Angela smiles, and she tells me a story that captures the essence of Aniah's personality. “It's funny you ask me that question. On the way to the gym, I got a text message from a girl that knew Aniah from elementary school. This will explain Aniah to a T,” said Angela.
In the text message, the girl explained that Aniah helped her get through a tough day at school. “I had a thing in school called grand-pals day, where you bring an older member from your family to show them your school,” the text read. “Nobody showed up for that girl that day. So Aniah walked with her and was her ‘grand-pal' for that day. And that is who she was—-Aniah had a great heart for other people. She cared deeply for others, and she put everybody before herself. She was funny and full of life. She always wanted everybody to be happy and enjoy life. For our family, she was it! Aniah was the love of everybody's life. She had that attraction, and everybody wanted to be around her. She was a giver; she was an amazing soul,” Angela said.
Being a father myself, I believe that the worst tragedy a parent can suffer is the untimely death of a child. In the ESPN feature, viewers got a firsthand look at the pain and heartache the Harris’ felt. For me, that level of grief is unimaginable. I was curious, so I asked Angela, “How long after the grieving process did you decide to pursue a bill for Aniah’s Law?”
“Two weeks after Aniah went missing,” said Angela, to my surprise. “I was like, wait a minute, what do you mean he's out on bond? Well, I'm going to do something about this, we have to change the law,” said Angela angrily, recalling the day she was informed that Yazeed was out on bail.
Shortly after Aniah's remains were found, the Harris’ started planning a memorial service for Aniah. While planning the memorial service Angela still felt a desire to change the current status of the bond law. Before the service, she received a call from a high school friend. He explained that Alabama state representatives Chip Brown and Tracy Estes were working on a bond reform law and would be honored if they could name it after Aniah. Angela was on board and agreed to work on the bill as soon as Aniah was given a proper memorial service.
Angela's eyes lit up brightly as she explained how Aniah's Law would help protect innocent people from those accused of violent crimes.
“Right now, in the state of Alabama, the judge can only grant no bond for capital murder charges, but this law would give the judges and the DAs the ability to call a hearing and say, ‘this violent criminal doesn't need to be on bond.' And the judge will have Aniah's Law to back him up. It's going to save so many lives here in Alabama.”
While she recognizes that the law that bears her daughter's name will potentially save lives, Angela still grieves the loss of her daughter. “It's also very emotional because my daughter had to die for us to have this amazing law. That's hard, but we didn't get a choice. We didn't get asked; of course, Aniah would be here if we had a choice. I know she is smiling down from heaven saying, ‘I know I had to be taken, but if my name and my situation can save a life, absolutely,’” said Angela, while bravely fighting back the tears.
On June 24, 2021, two days after what would've been Aniah's 21st birthday, Governor Ivey signed the bill. Upon hearing the news that the bill was signed, and that “Aniah's Law” was one step closer to becoming a law, Angela Harris experienced mixed emotions.
Angela recounted, “I fell on the floor, it hurt, it was a mixture of emotions. I was grieving so hard at the moment for my daughter, but I was also happy that the bill went through. It was the worst of the worst and the best of the best all together at the same time, and I fell on the floor. I couldn't describe it, so I sobbed for hours.”
One more step needs to be taken before the proposal can be realized into a law. Because the proposal involves a constitutional amendment, the residents of Alabama must vote for this law to go into effect.
The voting will take place on November 22, 2022. Angela Harris remains optimistic that the majority of Alabama residents will vote in favor of the amendment. In the meantime, Angela will be traveling throughout the state of Alabama campaigning for “Aniah's Law.”
The interview was tense. I was experiencing a myriad of emotions as Angela was recounting the tragedy that fell upon their family. I was sad for them, angry at the justice system, and scared for my daughters. Finally, I took a deep breath and thanked her for sharing her story. I apologized to her for making her relive that horrific event.
She smiled and told me that I didn't have to apologize. “The pain is constant,” confessed Angela. She expressed that the emotional turmoil comes and goes, not daily, but hour by hour. “But I love talking about Aniah,” said Angela with that bright smile I had grown accustomed to throughout the interview. And with that, I felt comfortable pressing on with the interview.
In addition to ensuring “Aniah's Law” comes to fruition, Angela is also the founder and CEO of Aniah's Heart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting families who have a loved one that has gone missing. “I knew I was going to call it Aniah's Heart because her heart was so big. The logo is two number “2s” that make a heart, representing our birthday June 22,” said Angela proudly. Yes, Aniah was born on Angela's birthday.
The idea to establish an organization that helps families search for missing loved ones is another concept which Angela conceived. “This came to me when Aniah was missing. I heard her say to me, ‘this is not ok. You have to do something about what happened to me and the safety issues,’” said Angela.
Despite law enforcement's best efforts to find Aniah, it became evident to the Harris family that they were limited in resources, and police protocols decelerated search efforts. Finding Aniah was the only priority for the Harris family, and it wasn't moving fast enough. Within the first 48 hours from the time Aniah was reported missing, friends, family, and concerned citizens came together to help the Harris family look for Aniah. That included ex-Army Rangers John Sloan, Johnathan Hill, and Cameron Williams, who volunteer at a nonprofit organization called “VETDRTI.” They were instrumental in helping locate Aniah.
“VETDRTI” is a group of veterans who volunteer to help communities with disaster relief efforts and search and rescue.
Angela realized that law enforcement agencies are not equipped with all the resources to locate missing people expeditiously. “The best way we can help them is to help them search,” said Angela emphatically.
“Aniah's Heart” offers personal safety education and teaches people how to be aware of their surroundings. It also provides self-defense classes. Additionally, the organization has a search and recovery team to assist families in finding missing loved ones.
“Teaching people to be aware, that's the biggest thing. People around here think this can't happen to them, and they don't know what to do when they get in a situation. So that's my part of it. Teaching safety tips,” said Angela.
Not only is Angela the CEO of the organization, but she also works on several missing cases reports. “It's overwhelming, but I want to be that support because the police can only do so much. And families wonder why the police aren't doing certain things. I didn't understand it myself when Aniah was missing, and I too wanted to know why they weren't looking for my child.”
Angela continued, “I want to be the liaison. I want to help families with resources. For example, suppose families need a hotel and food? Because your life stops when a loved one comes up missing. Our search party has helped find people working with law enforcement and on our own.”
Angela and Walt Harris have received an overwhelming amount of support during their fight for “Aniah’s Law” and also keeping the memory of their daughter alive.
The UFC has supported the Harris family from the moment Aniah went missing. They have sponsored “Aniah's Heart” and use their media platforms throughout the world to highlight all the Harris family's work. The boxing community has also pitched in to help circulate news regarding Aniah's Law and the efforts of the Harris family. “They keep the message going on social media. Aniah's name is staying relevant. I have a friend that lives in Florida who is the publicist for Vinny Paz aka ex world champion Vinny Pazienza, they tweet updates every day. They are close to me. They keep it going, and it has been huge. A lot of the fighters keep it going for us, saying her name. We have friends like Deontay Wilder and his coaches, they are very supportive.”
Charles Dickens wrote, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” Angela is a warrior who will never stop fighting to keep the memory of her daughter alive. In doing so, she helps countless other families through her nonprofit organization. However, being a lone warrior can take its toll on an individual. So, I asked Angela, how can we help her? How can the public help ease the burden of running a nonprofit organization?
What amazed me was that before she spoke about how we could help her, she volunteered her services to help others. “I will go and speak anywhere, churches, schools. Let me know! I will go anywhere and leave the country because we get support from people in countries like New Zealand, France, and Russia. I paired up with a woman named Carrie Pascorillo, who owns a global safety and security company to teach people safety tips when they travel overseas.”
She went on to say that Aniah's Heart is a national nonprofit organization, and we can visit aniahsheart22.com and look for opportunities to volunteer. “If you want to volunteer, we can do zoom meetings, plan events, and if they want to be a part of Aniahs' heart in any way, we will appreciate the help,” said the CEO joyfully.
And if you can't help with your time, perhaps you can help with your money by making donations at the website.
Before I closed the interview, I asked Angela what advice can she give people that have experienced or are experiencing a missing loved one?
“What helps me the most is thinking about Aniah, thinking about what she would want me to be doing, what would make her happy. If we don't keep going or keep trying, our loved ones won't be happy. Live for them like I am doing with Aniah. I am living for her and let her live through me. That is the best advice I can give; it is hard to get up, especially if you're actively going through, you don't know where your loved one is; that is hell within itself. You just got to remember that your loved one would want you to do everything you possibly could to be happy in life. Remember the love you have for your loved one. I rather feel the pain and cry than feel nothing because all that love has to go somewhere. It's not easy, it's very hard, and I will get through it,” Angela said. I have a 22-year-old son Elijah, a 15-year-old son Asah, and an 8-year-old daughter Ala. and she would absolutely be so mad that Walt and I didn't give them the best life that we could.”