SHELBY, N.C. -- Six years ago on Valentine's Day, Asha Degree disappeared from her home in Shelby.
Authorities still don’t know what happened to the 9-year-old. She was last seen walking along Highway 18 in the middle of the night.
Months after her disappearance, police conducted an investigation that turned up her hair ribbon and book bag. No other traces have been found since.
On Tuesday, a group of close friends and family members gathered at Asha's home on Oakcrest Street. Holding hands, they prayed for her safe return home. Then they made the mile-long walk to her billboard along Highway 18. The billboard asks, "Have you seen Asha Degree?"
This is the fifth year in a row that the walk has been held on the anniversary of Asha's disappearance. In addition to raising awareness, it also raised money that her parents can put toward a reward.
"If it was your child, you would do the same," said Iquilla Degree, Asha's mother. "You can’t give up hope. Hope is all we have.”
Asha’s parents said it lifts their spirits to see people coming together for their cause.
“It hurts, but it also helps because we know we aren’t in it by ourselves,” father Harold Degree said. “We know we’re not alone. We know we got people who are hurting just as much as us.”
Iquilla Degree said the tradition will continue every year “until (Asha) comes home. Because we don’t believe she’s dead.”
The money raised Tuesday will also go to the FBI, who can make a sketch of what Asha would look like today. If she is alive, she is 15 years old.
Although several tips have come in recently, authorities have made little progress in their search.
Last spring, they dug up an area just south of Shelby and came up empty-handed. Nothing was found a few weeks ago, either, after someone claimed to have spotted the girl in the Detroit area.
Web Journalists: Mike Cartelli and Kyle Almond