Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Another Look at Chico

Tuesday September 25th the last day of this 2012 Road Tour. We have three stops today, and then we head back to Los Angeles for a few hours of sleep before we head home. The time has gone quickly, but it seems as if I left home years ago.

The rally stop this morning is for Heidi Ring and is in Chico California. We pull up to a beautiful park that is kind of in the center of town, so there is a lot of car traffic and pedestrian traffic which is always a good thing. It is a beautiful California day and as we hop out of the van we are met with big hugs from Heidi's mom; her brother and sister follow closely behind. I think immediately of the one (Heidi) who is not there, and I remember what that feels like.

Visually this stop makes you stop and take it all in, the park setting, the balloons, the river, the beautiful sign in table and handcrafted thank yous. All of this done so lovingly for Heidi. The media arrives and the event begins with prayer and then family members and friends speak about Heidi and her disappearance.

What strikes me this morning as it does so often at these stops is that today in this moment for this family, there is more going on than an awareness campaign, there is more going on than the reminding of a community, town and yes law enforcement that one of their own is still missing. All of which is vitally important. For the families though, these moments at their stop is also about honoring their loved one and celebrating who they are, something they don't get to do quite often. It is a time to stop and remember.

I stand in the back taking pictures and I am able to get a sense of who Heidi is by the way everyone speaks. Today for some reason though the word why keeps running through my head. Why so many?, Why this family? Why my family? Why the pain, why the suffering? There is no answer, but there is hope! I am reminded that through the unknowing and the pain and emotional roller coaster we as family ride, there are many blessing and graces disguised on this journey, we sometimes just need to look for them. I know this tour and CUE and a woman named Monica and all her selfless volunteers are a blessing and that grace disguised in my own life and the lives of many others on this journey.

I am reminded as well as I stand and listen and take it all in that this is where my faith comes in. That is how I got and continue to get through, my God and His amazing unconditional love, and knowing that I never was or ever am alone in any of this. In speaking with other family's I know this to be true for others as well. Sometimes that faith and that love are what we need to trust in and at many times it is the only thing there is.

We head to the river with our leaves on which we have each written something. We release the leaves and it seems as if each one of us gathered together for a brief moment are alone, alone in our thoughts and our prayers as we let the leaves go down the river. It is a beautiful moment, one that I won't soon forget.

Heading back to pack up and leave Heidi's mom and her sister look at the balloons still tied to the tree and they ask me to hold them as they pop them with great force and tenacity. I oblige and a smile comes across my face as they begin to laugh as they tear these balloons apart, it is a much needed release. They ask if I would like to try one and I do, just one though and it really does feel good. We hug and say goodbye and head off to the next stop, all this and the day has just begun.
Lisa Valentino

For those reading this blog it should be noted that Heidi Rings remains were positively identified on October 10th. Please remember Heidi and her family in your prayers.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fresno, California

I have been apprehensive about this day since the tour began, but not for the reasons one might think. I was worried about the travel and the logistics. You see, the day before, we had left Bellingham, Washington around lunchtime for a 13 hour drive back to California and then there were 3 rally stops scheduled on this...our We would continue south, stopping in Chico in the morning, Sacramento in the afternoon, and Fresno at dusk, after which there would be a 4 hour drive back to Los Angeles. And since most of our group would be flying home first thing the following morning, there would be much work to do once we arrived in LA. I was exhausted just thinking about it.

Not that any of this ever matters when we reach a stop.

As we arrived at Casey Berry's stop in a field next to a Walmart, we were immediately greeted by smiling faces. The table, covered with a patchwork quilt, had 3 larger candles (hope, peace and believe) surrounded by many more smaller symbolic candles. The poster board was brightly colored containing pictures of  Casey with his sister, Casey with his mom, rainbows, guitars and peace symbols. There was a copy of the book Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer along with the Eddie Vedder CD from the movie soundtrack. All these items, inspired by Casey's life, gave us such a sense of him, which I'm sure was the point.

Casey Berry was 25 when he disappeared on 2-14-07. He was last seen leaving his home in rural Alamosa Colorado, where he lived with his wife, young daughter and another couple. He was presumably headed to visit someone who lived outside of Blanca Colorado, another rural town in Costilla County about 20 miles away. His roommate at the time told police a convoluted story involving Casey's being killed by the man he had gone to visit. The roommate (along with his girlfriend) subsequently vanished and the police have never identified the man he accused.

Casey was raised in Fresno and that's where his family still resides. He is described to me as a son, brother, dad, uncle, nephew and cousin; a free spirited man who should have been a 60's child. His large extended family spent the rally telling stories and honoring him in ways they thought he would enjoy including releasing Chinese lanterns into the night sky. What fun we had figuring out how to light and release these translucent, brightly colored lanterns, watching each one rise and fly away up into the darkness. The best part, though, may have been when the freaked out Walmart manager came running out announcing that he never approved us sending fire up into the Fresno sky.

In speaking with Casey's mom, Terri, I learned she had been at the conference four years ago. We reminisced a bit about that year and I urged her to return. I try to encourage all the families I speak with to attend the yearly conferences, its so important for so many reasons...

We spoke mother to mother about our sons. For the second time in a day I was asked a question I had never gotten before. This time I was more prepared to answer, although, I still stumbled with my words.

"Is it better knowing your son is dead?"

Earlier I had just said yes, which is such a simplistic and predictable answer. Nothing really compares to having your child go missing. In my case, I felt right away that Mathew was dead, I even knew where I thought he was. But, even when your heart knows what happened, there is no proof. Initially recovery is worse because there is no more hope. At least when they are missing, especially initially, there is a chance you may see them again...hold them again. Recovery is a pain unlike any other. As time goes by, you begin to breathe again, and just as you adjusted to living with a missing child you now adjust to having a deceased child. So in the end, yes, it is better.

Elisa Stirling

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sacremento, California

We had a little trouble finding the state capital building but managed to arrive on time. This is the second stop in a day of three rallys so we really were trying to be mindful of the time and keep on schedule.

The rally was held on the steps of the building, making many passers by stop and listen to what was going on. Always a good thing, hopefully they walked away with a clearer understanding of the missing person's world, and will remember and pay attention when they pass a flyer or hear a news story.

Jennifer Byers Hernandez' family was hosting the event. Jennifer was 31 when she was last seen in Modesta. She disappeared on 8-24-08 along with her son, Gerardo Barajas Jr (Junior) who was 5 at the time. Although there are not many details available in their case, there are suspicions. Jennifer's family believes that Junior may have been taken to Mexico. I had a talk with her mom who questioned me about what it was like to know Mathew is deceased. She had that familiar look in her eyes as she asked if it was better...

When we first arrived (finally, after almost losing Lisa on the side of the road), there weren't many people there or much going on, but I've become used to these types of beginnings. When the tour first started I would be anxious for the family. Waiting for more arrivals, for the media, wanting them to have a good turnout. Now I know it will happen. Slowly, people will arrive and it will all come together. Most of the time the press arrives late, often as we are preparing to leave. This tends to put us behind, but willing to do whatever is necessary to facilitate them in whatever they need to get the family's story out. I wonder if we need to reiterate that these stops are for only one hour. I wonder if people, and the press see the starting time and do not realize how quickly everything happens.

When we started setting up Jennifer's family had not yet arrived, so we were first greeted by Shelli Madrid. She had hosted a stop for Kathy the week before in Mendocino. Kathy had gone missing in Mendocino, and Shelli had traveled there to host that rally, but the family actually lives here, and so Jennifer's family had included them. I remember this happening on last year's tour. Family members and friends who did not live near their rally stop would show up at another stop closer to where they lived. This is an important aspect of going on tour, I think. They don't have to miss the entire experience because they are unable to travel. They can attend another rally, see their loved one on the banner, honor their person and be involved. After all, every rally, no matter where or whose family hosts, is really for all missing persons and their loved ones.

Jennifer's mother, brother and niece arrived and began their set up. Jennifer's sister has organized this stop and I believe she has been the one in charge since Jennifer went missing 4 years ago. This is something we have talked about many times. Usually when someone goes missing it is a parent or spouse that runs things. If they are unable, it becomes the responsibility of the siblings. In those long standing cases, it often ends up eventually falling to the children or the next generation. Sometimes they were young when the person initially went missing and grew up in this life, sometimes they have been groomed to continue to carry the torch, to not forget, to always seek resolution.

I was sorry not to meet Jennifer's sister, sorry that she was unable to attend, and to see how all her hard work payed off. Her daughter Katelynn filled in for her, the baton being momentarily passed. As we listened, this young adult so versed in her aunt's case began by stating the statistics. Those horribly large, unfathomable numbers of the amount of people who are missing, and who go missing every year. She spoke some about her aunt's case, and the family's problems with getting media attention, getting the police to become more involved. Basically the overall lack of help. She ended with a moving poem that I hadn't heard before called I'm keeping the light on.

Kathy's sister, Anise, told us how  Kathy had done everything in her power to provide her a good and stable life. She told stories about her sister and then her it was her uncle's turn. He began by telling us that he was wearing a shirt that Kathy had given him. He said "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Kathy is in heaven and the bad news is that the people responsible are not in hell". His emotions were all over the place. His voice would rise in anger and lower when he spoke of his niece. The visible tug of war we witnessed was one all of us in the missing person community have experienced, I would go so far as to say that we all still do.

There was music at this rally that a local teenage boy provided. When his father got up to speak I thought it was to solicit work. Instead, it was a moving account of how they ended up here on this day. Of how they were invited to participate while playing a fair nearby. Of how they have never met families of the missing before. Of how he could not even grasp how these families must feel. Of how he would feel if his son went missing. Of how their lives are forever changed by what they witnessed today.
Elisa Stirling

Rally Stop Chico, California

We arrived a few minutes early at our Chico stop, coming through town you could tell it had a lot of character, has the feeling of home. This town also hold the secret of a missing woman Heidi Ring who vanished a number of years ago, not a word, sighting, she just vanished. Her story is like hundreds across America, people disappear and no clues or information obtainable left behind. These cases are normally the hardest to solve, their is no jump off point or maybe there was and it was not found in time due to she is an adult. Most people do not take missing adults seriously until something develops to prove foul play or a crime has taken place, sad but it is the reality of it all.

The park where the rally stop is taking place is so very large, runs in a circle and filled with tall aged trees with a beautiful hidden shallow creek that flows in it's length. It was the perfect spot, very open to the street and traffic but really a place of serenity. People were busy as bees preparing items for the stop and Heidi's mom greeting each person as they arrive and making them feel extra special. We added our set up to their's and more arrived including the press, so the program began. People spoke including law enforcement, it was plain to see everyone cared and wanted her home, then two different prayers were offered up, it was a very nice tribute.

I so looked forward to the walk to this creek, but first we wrote messages with washable markers on the leaves that the family had prepared in advance. I love the many ideas loved ones of the missing come up with to honor their missing person, I thought about that when I wrote my message. I walked out as far as I could on the rocks to send my message, really to get away from the crowd so I could send my own prayer out with it, dropping seven leafs. I secretly put additional messages out for each person on the tour and gave thanks for them in my life, for taking part in the tour; for Harlan to be afforded a resolution, Lisa to get her justice and for Elisa to always find peace and to keep healing her heart.
Everyone had their own send offs and it was weird how most found a spot of comfort, in the distance I even heard some speaking words out loud.

I found myself wondering as I always do, why? Why must these innocent families who did nothing to deserve this pain be forced to endure year after year seeking a resolve. See families never move on like one thinks they should, I mean how do you forget your child, sibling, parents, friend, relative? If each of us stopped for five minutes and really would give that a thought, well I guess most will not. My point being you cannot forget about a true love, give up on love, nor can you ignore the loss of love, so that would be your answer...the missing are loved!

As we said our goodbye, Heidi's mother whispered in my ear, I had to laugh....she is a hoot. We left with a peaceful heart, knowing with there faith they will endure and wait, I know I will do more to help and I will always hold dear this stop and my walk to this creek. Driving away I think about all the little extra things that were hand made and given to us as departure gifts, the thought and time that went into it, it made me smile.

Monica Caison

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Another Look at Burlington

Another day on the road, the days go quickly as we encounter so much in such a relatively short period of time.  I am a little tired this morning and am realizing that it is not due to late nights and early mornings, but rather all the emotions that have been running through me these past few days. You can't help but feel emotional meeting these families and hearing their stories, listening and hoping and most of all praying that the answers and resolution they seek will be forthcoming and soon!

We leave our hotel and head to Burlington Washington, this stop is for Patty Krieger. We pull into the parking lot of the tire store where the rally stop is being held and are faced immediately with a larger than life poster of Patty. The stop is on a main highway and there is a lot of traffic which is a good thing.

Patty has been missing for almost 2 years and the pain is as real now as it was then, I see it in her family and friends faces and hear it in their words. I know I have said it before, this pain, this not knowing, the constant guessing and what ifs and the feelings all of that brings do not lessen in 2 years or 25 years; it remains the same. We as families learn to live with that pain, but it does not go away and we don't just forget or move on as some may suggest we do. This is real life, it's our life.

More people start arriving and balloons begin to get blown up. On the street as cars pass by they hold posters of their missing loved ones and I remember doing the same and how that feels, needing and wanting to do something and hoping that our loved ones get the attention that is so necessary. I come upon a mother, Ruth Sine whose son Bobby is missing and came to this event to get the word out once again. My heart breaks, it is so hard, this never becomes easier. I hug her and we speak briefly and I offer prayers.

We head over to a large open space for this balloon release and Monica gets in the middle to speak of the significance of the release as she does at so many stops. Somehow this feels different today. I am looking at these faces gathered in the circle through the lens of a camera and I begin to tear up. I notice the reporter from the news station who has been interviewing these families tear up as well. He has been affected, he has experienced a bit of what these families and friends go through on a daily basis and he is visibly moved. This is a day he won't soon forget a day perhaps that changes him.

As the balloons are released no one is in a hurry to take their eyes off them as they head up into the atmosphere. They all stare upwards and hug and hold on to one another as they remember their missing loved one. There is a long period of silence and I move away to the side, I do not want to be intrusive. Soon all begin to move and head back to pack up their posters and sign the Road Tour banner, then get in their cars and continue on in their lives as best they can.

I believe that most if not all present today leave with a renewed sense of hope and understanding. In this hour that passed Patty and Bobby and many others were not just remembered, but honored. I leave this stop as well changed and hopeful and honored to have shared such a personal moment with so many. I realize as we leave that my life is forever changed, not just because of the loss of my sister Allison, but because of all the people I have met and continue to meet on this journey. I am blessed!

Lisa Valentino

Rally Stop Bellingham, Washington

Excitement filled the air as we traveled the high road to Bellingham, it is a place that holds much meaning for the national tour and why it even exist today. See, Leah Roberts became missing while on a cross country trip and she was searching for herself, to make some life decisions and find who she was or maybe even dig deep as to who she has become, something we will never be sure of because she vanished. Days later her vehicle was found wrecked off a lonely logging trail up on Mount Baker, a very odd place leaving more questions than answers. We could not get any help with her story, feeling like we needed to do more, CUE decided to set out and travel her direct path.

We were so excited of the unknown, I wonder many times if that is how Leah felt leaving on her trip, excited of the unknown? Selina, me and four others set out cross country, we stopped and talked to so many people at exits, the homeless, folks at rest areas, it did not matter we wanted to let everyone know Leah had passed through there town and the fact that she was a real person, putting people with her name and missing was crazy....we called into every radio station of towns we were going through, meeting TV cameras on the side of the road or at exits coming up, it was a whirlwind, we never stopped. Our goal was to obtain national media for Leah and we in fact landed people magazine and much more, we felt accomplished!

We were packing to leave and head home after being on the mountain where Leah was last seen and spending time there, we buried a box with mementos, secret written notes with a promise to return in a road side ceremony we fought back tears leaving that day; then the call. A call of a meek woman requesting we come to her town and feature her child who was missing, she had seen something on the news, it took all of two minutes to say why not, yes we will come. So in real time our plans changed from the route coming we had planned to take home, leading us to North Dakota and across the top haven of the United States doing the same things, but now telling more stories and adding Leah's legacy to the trip; we did not know at the time that was what was happening though. More calls began to come in and later that night when we stopped at a hotel where the emails flooded in, so we just kept going until we found our way back home some two weeks or more later. Exhausted but excited about all the folks we met, sights we got to see, but most importantly knowing we had made a small difference in the world.

It was days before I could even walk and get back into the routine of working cases and such, then I went to check the CUE Center mail...there I had a moment, I was handed a key. I opened the largest cargo box the post office had and right before me was this huge tub of mail, I recall looking back at the postal attendant, he smile and said thats not all we have their is more behind the desk. So he helped me load the mail in my car, I called a few CUE members and by buddy Selina, of coarse she was at my house with in minutes of my arrival. We all sat on my living room floor sorting the mail and began to read, sharing highlights of letters and request, reading heartfelt stories written to us and about the tour. Five hours later (not realizing the time that had passed) we shed tears, we talked about our experienced, we just was on my living room floor the decision was made to make the tour an annual event. So, that is why "On the Road to Remember" continues today.

For all of us it meant more than people will ever understand, the legacy of a young woman who was searching for her soul, her life's that trip we took because of her, we were to the same and God helped us find another way to better ourself and bring a meaning to hundreds of families who suffer a missing loved one. I have to admit though when Selina died unexpected a couple of years later I never thought I would find anyone to help me keep the tour alive, I was so wrong. I secretly honor Selina's memory with the tour, she adored it and it was all she looked forward to, it was her that help helped me create it, encouraged me in it and pushed me outside of my comfort zone to do it! So, needless to say it has a deep meaning for me on three levels. The families fight for HOPE, Legacy of Leah Roberts and my dearly missed friend and long time CUE member Selina.

We meet with Kara and Holly in Bellingham, we all spent the day with the Detective and visit the law enforcement compound that still housed Leah's vehicle, for me it was a familiar site, but it bothered me her car was now outside and no longer in the garage. This meant to me they were done with it, it was a sad time for me, but I remained silent with my thoughts. So much time has passed, she is still missing, we need a jump start, something has to give, just a few emotional thoughts that ran through my head. Yea, I know I think to much at times. But, I know I am stubborn and we will not give up, I truly believe that every missing person case does find a resolution, sometimes it is the length of the journey that can wear on us for sure, but I do believe. To not believe says their is no hope in suffering here, not the way I could ever think nor could I except that way of thinking, ever!

We then made the drive to the mountain, I wanted so badly for everyone to share in what Kara and I had years ago, to be were Leah's car was found, see this beautiful mountain ridge, but mostly I wanted to find the box we had placed there years ago, I needed that for many reasons, but the road was blocked. Huge rocks set in the roadway, it was so overgrown, it was not the same place I recalled, time had visited that place. We made the decision not to hike it up while we were walking up the road, we would loose light soon and we had no decent protection from the wild, it would not have been smart to keep growing, we were all disappointed. I felt bad for Holly the most, she needed to see it, she needed to share this part of Kara's past with her because it is still the present time for them both, a little part of me was selfish that day, I needed to find that box and see what Selina had written to Leah and knowing a note in there for me existed as well. God has other plans that day.

We had already planned to replace the box and had things we were going to put in the new box to bury, we still did that. In a clear box I wrote Leah's name and that days date, Kara brought rocks with her for all to write a message and place in the box; I brought from home a necklace that had great meaning to me, an item Susan Murphy Milano had sent me a long time ago with a private message. We added a button, flyers, our rocks and the necklace and just like years ago Kara and I wrote a private message on paper and placed in there, we were now ready to bury the box. In a small ceremony Holly and Kara looked for the perfect spot, I stood back a bit, it was there time to have something together, I watched like a guess a mother would, proud of who Kara has grown into, I have grown to love her over time as I do many of my families, but today, flooded with so much time, people and memories, it was confirmed of the love our families have for each other.

We lingered around for awhile, then as hard as it was we drove out at dusk was leaning in the mountain. Everyone knew that feeling....not wanting to leave, that tug it does to your heart, because everyone in the tour vehicle has had a life experience of a missing person. Elisa was her son, Lisa was her sister and Harlan, his nephew and the list goes on. Then someone said something funny and laughter lighten the moment, conversation began to hide what each one of us were feeling.

The next morning was Leah's rally stop, the police wanted us to come in early and have donuts and coffee, etc. to meet with everyone on Leah's case including the Sheriff, it was an awesome meeting. Kara fought back tears a few times asking questions in need of long time answers, of coarse I had a few of my own as well. All and all we all left knowing that each person in that room that morning did care, they all wear Leah's case on the shoulders and hearts, again I believe.  That meeting reinforces my trust in law officials and humanity, we enter the rally stop, it all went well. Many things will follow this stop in time to come, it is a renewed hope. I remain humble and honored to serve the missing, I am reminded daily of the importance of that; we are all God's extended branch of hope, it's just that simple.

We say our goodbyes....and begin to travel to our next rally stop, again on a journey of the unknown.

Monica Caison

Friday, October 5, 2012

Rally Stop Burlington, Washington

Last night leaving the candle light service a voice said please give Patti's family our love and prayers, I thought but we are to be in Bellingham? I had to sit and look at the scheduled route again to be sure of what day it was and find my bearings; realizing I am glad I did. So, now came the hunt for a hotel because all day I knew we already had rooms booked for the next stop (I thought it was Bellingham)! We ended up lucky, checking in I was beating myself up, asking myself how could I overlook this stop or forget? It was then I felt the overwhelming task each year of the road tour, we are never short in cases to feature...then I got angry! Life sometime just is not fair, so much pain in the world I live in, but then I am gently reminded of all the kind moments, moments shared, all the special people I have meet, and I smile. This is what life is really about, helping others, putting someone's life before yours, I try to live daily to that standard.

Arriving at Patti's stop (very hard to miss), signs cry out from the road side begging for people to care, to look and to help! Their was lots of visuals, balloons, banners in life size and a tent. You could feel the love everyone has for Patti and the appreciation of our attendance. We had a good turn out, not one car that passed did not realize people are missing, to include other families who were there.

It bothers me because no matter what town or state, no matter what case the story from the families and loved ones is similar.....we need more help, no one will listen to us and the words most often heard, are the feeling of abandonment of their officials. I know deep down thats not always the case, but feelings are real and people have them, so they never can be wrong. The truth is that the police do care, however they are held hostage to their job requirements "do not get close" and they have to stay level headed, although I do have to admit compassion can go along was with those left behind to suffer a missing loved one. I think sometimes in a job or title of one, people loose humanity and commitment, that can be frustrating to loved ones a the missing, that surly needs to improve on so many levels.

We launched the balloons at closing of the event activities, it was different today, no one moved after they floated away. People lingered in the circle we had formed, looking to the sky, as if we all were searching for a sign of some sort. Many tears were shed, silent prayers being lifting up, but what stood out the most to me was the silence of the moment, I think even the media caught it on a personal note fighting back emotion. I recall a brief smile I had thinking someone who was not affected, got it. That is what the tour tries to accomplish, reaching those not touch, reaching those who have nothing invested in this circle, just reaching those out there.

Is always touches me to see how far those who love someone will travel and go for the missing person, climb that mountain, walk through rain, visit places they would never dream of and putting forth that actions to get a resolve. I know this tour reinforces that we are all on the same team and provides that glimmer of hope for most. I think about Bellingham, I get nervous knowing later today I will be once again on that mountain that Leah became lost on, I realize I am more invested in all of the missing than I ever thought 18 years old I would be. I say a pray for everyone in the circle and break myself away from the emotions of saying goodbye.

Monica Caison