It was expected to be 106 degrees in Patterson, CA yesterday. Packing lightly, I left my apartment to pick up Danielle [LaMar] from the BART station – ready to head down to the inferno we all call central California. Our three hour mini-roadtrip, though hilariously misdirected as we crossed Sacramento County when we were supposed to be going south, was smooth sailing as we caught up on each other’s lives and the latest in both of our family’s cases.
My first time doing a KlaasKids Print-a-thon was in Patterson nearly a year ago – the October right after we found Michelle. At that time, I was adjusting to a new normal as I started involving myself with the organization that helped find her. That October, I promised myself, Michelle and KlaasKids that I would be involved with this team for the rest of my life.
It was a strong commitment to make, to say the least. Recently, with the trial coming up, I have been reflecting on this new normal that I’ve made and how rapidly and dramatically my lifestyle, hobbies and attitude have changed as a direct result of her death.
I have always believed in optimism – making and seeing things better and brighter. Michelle’s murder presented what was possibly the most challenging situation to be optimistic about; it was senseless, cold, brutal violence that gashed into our lives and made us realize how dark and evil human nature really can be. We, as a society, see robberies and crimes every day on the news, hear about weird zombie cannibals on bath salts, maybe mingled briefly with others who have faced tragedies of their own – but until you taste the same sense of bitter anger, confusion, hopelessness and desperation for answers, you feel shielded from all the world’s woes.
Then there are families who are brave enough to hear about the world’s woes, and not only acknowledge, but face the fact that they should be preventative about protecting their children. Not by avoiding, but embracing, the conversation about child safety.
Danielle, Marc, Violet and I headed to the Patterson festival ready to meet and help those families.
Also joining KlaasKids was Tabitha Cardenas, who lost her own 4-year-old son in early 2011 in Patterson. I had a chance to meet Tabitha last October; she is truly a strong woman with a beautiful smile that seems to defy all that happened to her and her young boy.
At print-a-thons, there is no darkness. Parents line up with their little ones whose ages range from a couple months old to 18 years old, ready to get them fingerprinted and ID-ed. We meet children and teens of all sorts of personalities – from super hyper to rebellious to autistic or with a mental disability – but all children have the same thing in common. They are all lovely, young and trusting – all with the potential to be lost or kidnapped.
These parents wait in line to do one of the best things they could do for their children – prepare to talk to them about child safety. They watch proudly as their child gets fingerprinted and laugh as their sons and daughters smile broadly at our camera. They know that it’s better to be safe than sorry, that the conversation about child safety isn’t something to avoid – that it could be fun and educational.
At the end of the day, we fingerprinted over 260 kids and met dozens of families and parents in the sweltering heat of Patterson. Over 260 kids went home with their bio sheets, safety tips and DNA kits. Hopefully, over 260 kids will have the conversation with their parents about child safety and crisis prevention.
I left the print-a-thon with a spoonful more optimism.
KlaasKids’ print-a-thons have historically helped over a million children. We can only hope our families’ stories helped 260 kids at Patterson; heck, we’d be happy if our families’ stories helped even one more family out there.
A year ago, I was in a dark place. Now I find myself in love with our organization, our searches and the volunteer heroes that we get to interact with on a daily basis. If the abductors, kidnappers and murderers expected our families to back down and whimper at our losses, I hope they know that our optimism overpowers whatever power they think they have. That our loved ones’ legacies far outweigh their pitiful, rotten existences.
Now that’s looking on the bright side of things.
As Danielle and I head back to the East Bay, the temperature drops to a thankfully cooler 88 degrees. The sun is shining brilliantly as we wish those 260 kids the happiest – and safest – futures that they could have.
Car wash baby!!! Last Saturday the Sierra Search Center better resembled the Sierra Social Center. 70 search volunteers signed up to find Sierra. They ate a good nutritious breakfast and set out in the rapidly warming day to see if they could finally crack this case. For all intents and purposes, it was shaping up as another routine day in the search for the missing teenage girl whose pretty, smiling face looks back at us from virtually every telephone pole and storefront window in Morgan Hill.
The car wash began at 10:00 a.m. under the supervision of Sandina and Cassie, two teenaged search center regulars. Plenty of kids showed up to help, and Sierra’s dad Steve brought soap, sponges, and towels. Cars began arriving right on time so the kids broke up into teams: two teams washing and two teams drying.
The amazing kitchen ladies passed out: no, wait, they didn’t pass out, they distributed some donated ice cream bars to the kids washing cars. Many declined and worked through the increasing heat. We even had to force some of the kids to take a break for lunch. Danny Domingo and Peggy Chou, Violet and Marlene LaMar joined in to help out. While they were no match for speed, their efficiency and good humor put them right in the groove. Returning searchers put their cars in line before debriefing. By the time the last car passed through the lot at around 3:00 p.m. more than 100 had been washed and $1,300 had been raised.
As this was going on a monster birthday card was being distributed among the volunteers. Longtime volunteer and search team briefing ace Roger Nelson was about to have a birthday party and he didn’t have a clue. When the cake and card were presented to him with a barely recognizable rendition of happy birthday he had the most bewildered look on his face, but accepted his surprise with grace and good humor. Then he ate two pieces of cake.
Finally, Danny and Peggy posted their unification project on a rare blank space on one of the auditorium walls. Volunteers who had only met in passing could finally put a name to the face. They were also able to learn why we had been brought together for this higher calling. The unification project will continue to grow until we find Sierra. Collectively I like to think of the auditorium walls as the walls of wonder, because in the face of harsh reality, they scream a message of hope and redemption.
Next week we continue our team building with a free Child ID Program. KlaasKids will provide this valuable free service in the Search Center auditorium between 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. We have providing Print-A-Thon’s throughout the country since 1994. Thus far we have fingerprinted and photographed more than 1,000,000 without ever charging a family for the service or data basing any personal or private information. Because we use the most sophisticated equipment we can capture viable fingerprints on children as young as 4-months old. We are hoping that the community turns out in large numbers because this valuable service provides a comprehensive suite of child safety tools at no cost. It will also give everybody an opportunity to see the walls of wonder for themselves.
The KlaasKids Foundation Print-A-Thon has been providing free Child Identification throughout the USA since 1994. Our oldest and most loyal sponsor, the St. Louis, Missouri based Dave Mungenast Auto Family has been hosting KlaasKids signature child safety event since 1996. This Saturday 10/15 marks our 15thannual Print-A-Thon in St. Louis, MO.