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Remembering Brianna

Res Publica

July 2006

by Danae Leali

Why missing people?

Missing people tend to fall in between the cracks of society’s sidewalk. They are often both gone and forgotten, except by those who love and miss them.

—— Kelly Jolkowski, mother of missing Jason Jolkowski

She was only 17 at the time. She was leaving work. They said it was an accident, but it looked more staged then anything. Her family argued that she wouldn’t have left three paychecks uncashed in her backseat if she was running away. The police said that she could have been drunk. Her family retorted with the fact that she was leaving work. Either way, she was missing now, and they needed to find her. That was almost two years ago. Brianna Maitland is still missing.

I’ve always read about missing persons. I’ve spent nights reading the FBI case files and pouring over the news articles detailing the investigations. It’s interested me so much that at one point in time I wanted to become a forensic scientist. It’s interested me so long that I had contemplated that decision when I was in the seventh grade.

Over time, I became more and more enveloped in the stories. First, I just read about their lives. Then I began remembering their names, then birthdates, then their situations and the way in which they had disappeared. I began hanging their pictures up outside of my dorm room and collecting buttons of their faces. At that time, my friend Vanessa, who had just become the president of the Amstutz Hall Council, asked me if I would like to put my knowledge and caring for missing persons to some use.

Together, and with the help of a mother of a missing child, we created the Adopt-A-Missing-Person Project. We asked students, faculty, and staff to choose from eight missing men, women, and children. They would receive a button and an information card for the person they adopted. We asked them to wear their button on a specific day—that was all. At first, I told the mother who helped us that we would need 50 buttons. But after receiving 90 sign-ups in Amstutz alone, we decided to take the project campus-wide.

Vanessa and I set up our table in the student center and set to work getting the attention of anyone who would listen to us and then told them about our project in the hopes that they would help us.
“Hey! Adopt a missing person! No charge!” (We added this last part on because we knew what college students are—we’re all broke).

A young man moved over to our table, looking only at us and not at the pictures we had spread out on the table.

“What’s this about?”

Since we’d received this question all day, we had no problems explaining the program.

“So, would you like to sign up?”

“No.”

We’d also received this answer all day—people believing there was more to it, people running to class, telling us they’d be back.

“You aren’t helping anything.”

We hadn’t received that reply.

“You’re not going to find anybody.”

“But it’s not about finding anyone…”

“But how is this doing anything? You should be doing something else like flying planes with their pictures. You’re never going to do anything.”

And with that, he walked away.

It was as if his words had sucked the air from our lungs and all we could do was watch as he walked away. I wanted to yell after him. I wanted to say to him, "Of course, I won’t find them. I will not and cannot find any one of these people."

And that’s the truth——I will never find a missing person who I have adopted. I will never see the smiles on their faces or the faces of their families as they return home. I will not share the joy of knowing that I reconnected generations. How could I? If the police can’t find them, if their families can’t find them, if hundreds of volunteers can’t find them, how can I? If today’s technology can’t find them, if rewards can’t find them, how can I? I am only one person with a small amount of money and a small amount of knowledge.

But I am one person. And one person with a small amount of caring can do great things. I knew I could not find them, but I could care enough to be thinking of them. People don’t realize that sometimes that is enough. When we look at the news, Natalee Holloway’s face stares back at us. She’s missing, and she’s being looked for by Aruba, by Holland, by America. But what about those who’ve been missing for years with no trace? Those whose cases have never reached the airwaves? Who never got the chance to tell America or even their own neighborhood how much it hurts that their child is gone? What about those people who believe they are the only ones left who remember their child? I will not find their child, but I can give them hope. Hope that their loved one is not forgotten. Hope that one day their child will come home.

On the day of the prayer vigil, my friend Vanessa called me, frantically telling me that she had found the aunt and cousin of one of our missing persons—Brianna Maitland, missing from Vermont—and that they were waiting in our dorm lobby. I hurried over to meet them, and as soon as I was identified, they threw their arms around me.

“You are our angel. We can’t thank you enough for remembering our Brianna.”

We walked over to the lower chapel where the Ashland Times-Gazette was waiting to interview both us and the Maitlands for a story. Vanessa and I listened to the stories that Brianna’s aunt had to tell us. She was a strong woman—you could see it in the way she’d dealt with such tragedy—but there were still moments that took away her bravery. Her eyes began to well up with tears as she told us about the searches. She told us that the searchers had told them not to look for a person. The searchers had told them to look for hair and for body parts. The pain she had felt knowing that she wasn’t looking for her niece, but pieces of her niece, had been too much for her. Tears began to flow from her eyes. She turned her head back and forth, searching for a tissue, tears flying from her eyes. I found a tissue and handed it to her. I could feel my throat tighten and the tears begin to fill my eyes.

I thought of the boy in the student center, telling us that we could never find a missing person. And I looked at Brianna’s aunt as she cried. She had called us angels, even though we hadn’t found her niece. That hadn’t been what was important to her. It was that someone—even a few college students, miles away from her home, who would never know Brianna’s voice—had thought about Brianna, had taken the time to learn her name. And that boy in the student center was right—we cannot find anybody; we cannot displace those tears. But we can remember.

Danae Leali is a junior from Canal Fulton, Ohio, majoring in Creative Writing.

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