Chapter 5

The many offers of support you receive in the first few days will carry you through. When people ask what they can do, try to tell them something specific. Tomorrow they may be gone, and you are likely to forget who made the offer.

-- Pat Sessions

One of the most heartwarming things you will experience is a tremendous outpouring of caring from family members, friends, and strangers. People of all races, nationalities, religions, and socioeconomic levels will offer you and your family emotional support, food and other gifts, and help in the search. In fact, volunteers are essential to the search process. They can and will play a variety of roles in the effort to find your child. This chapter offers suggestions for ways to involve volunteers in the search and ideas for managing offers to help.

Making the Best Use of Volunteers

To make the best use of volunteers, select a volunteer coordinator who is organized, efficient, and able to work well with and give direction to others. The role of the volunteer coordinator is not to handle volunteer activities directly, but rather to delegate to others management of specific activities, such as bringing food to the family, providing water for the searchers, and coordinating distribution of posters and fliers. Choose someone who is practical, well organized, and skilled in providing leadership.

Keep a running list -- or have someone keep a list for you -- of the things you need as they arise. If you keep your list current, new volunteers will always have a way to get involved, and returning volunteers will know where to go to find out what is needed next.

When someone offers to help, write down the person's name, telephone number, and type of service preferred. When your child is first missing, it is hard to think of what you need now, much less what you will need in the future. If you have no ready answer for someone who asks to help, write down specific information that will enable you to contact that person later with a particular task.

Don't be afraid to ask for what you need. No task is too small or too large. If you need something, the best thing you can do for yourself is to ask. You will be truly amazed by the amount of support you receive. People really do want to help.

Tap into the network of resources that private clubs, businesses, and agencies have available to them. Many local clubs, businesses, and agencies can help in a variety of ways -- by donating items, distributing photographs and fliers, or participating in the search. Make a list of what you need, and see what each group can provide. Here are some of the types of organizations that may be willing to help:

  • Rotary clubs and other civic organizations.

  • Red Cross chapters.

  • Local posts of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

  • Local lodges.

  • Churches and synagogues.

  • Parent-teacher associations.

  • Scout troops.

  • Retiree organizations.

  • Labor unions.

  • Military installations.

  • Printers.

  • Paper suppliers.

  • Pizza franchises.

  • Fast food chains.

  • Liquor store chains.

  • Airline companies.

  • Taxicab and bus companies.

  • Trucking companies.

  • Public and private transportation agencies.

  • Hospitals.

  • Colleges and universities.

  • Political groups.

Be aware that some volunteers may want to become too involved, to get too intimate with the family, or to act beyond their designated responsibility. Some individuals seem to enjoy media attention. They try to shift the focus of attention away from your child and onto themselves. If you feel uncomfortable with anyone or anything for any reason, inform your volunteer coordinator or law enforcement contact. Also, don't use unknown volunteers to do personal tasks, such as washing laundry or helping with carpools. Instead, rely on friends or family members for these jobs.

Suggested Volunteer Activitiess

Volunteers can do many things for you. Let them. In doing so, you allow people to fulfill their desire to help, and you relieve yourself of the burden of trying to do everything yourself, which you cannot. The following activities are particularly well suited for volunteers.

  • Participate in the physical search.

  • Canvas area businesses for donations of supplies needed for the search effort or for the family's upkeep.

  • Design posters or fliers.

  • Tack up pictures and posters and hand out fliers.

  • Contact nonprofit organizations, community groups, or other agencies in the community for donations or other assistance in producing or distributing posters.

  • Keep track of all donated items and write thank-you notes.

  • Answer the home telephone 24 hours a day and maintain a telephone log.

  • Prepare meals.

  • Help with household chores, such as cleaning, doing laundry, watering flowers, mowing the lawn, maintaining the yard, or shoveling the driveway.

  • Run errands, such as shopping for groceries or going to the pharmacy.

  • Take care of pets.

  • Form prayer groups.

Using Untrained Volunteers in the Search Effort

Typically, law enforcement is the coordinating force behind the search, but volunteers often play a major role, especially in the immediate search of the 3- to 5-mile radius around where your child was last seen.

Designate a volunteer search coordinator to work with law enforcement. The volunteer search coordinator will need instruction from law enforcement to determine:

  • How many nonpolice personnel will be needed in the search.

  • What locations or areas are to be searched and on what schedule.

  • What training will be provided to volunteers.

  • How information will be disseminated among volunteers.

  • What specific instructions will be given to volunteers about the process, procedures, and parameters of the search.

Even though private individuals, organizations, and businesses may be interested in helping with the search, it is usually easier to work with an organized group. Organized groups can quickly mobilize large, cohesive groups of searchers and can work through an already established chain of command that will reduce battles for leadership and control. Groups can choose their own team leaders, who can serve as a bridge between the volunteer search coordinator and the volunteer searchers. The volunteer search coordinator's task of conveying information to the volunteer searchers will be easier, because the team leader can be asked to explain to each group what needs to be done.

Law enforcement, the volunteer search coordinator, and the team leaders should work together to make sure that volunteers are doing what they are supposed to do. Sometimes, overwrought volunteer searchers go beyond their designated roles and responsibilities and may unwittingly impose themselves on the missing child's family. The checklist Working With Volunteer Searchers summarizes the most important points that need to be covered with volunteers.

Make sure that a list of the names and addresses of all volunteers is kept. You will need this list to write thank-you notes, and law enforcement may need it during the search and investigation.

Using Trained Volunteers in the Search Effort

Project ALERT (America's Law Enforcement Retiree Team) provides law enforcement agencies with free consultations on cases involving missing children. Project ALERT was launched by NCMEC in 1992 to link trained, retired volunteers with law enforcement agencies involved in cases of missing children. The following services are provided:

  • An emergency response team of seasoned investigators who can offer additional personnel, search coordination, and other critical resources.

  • Specialized training to law enforcement agencies to help them resolve recent or long-term missing child cases.

  • Experienced public speakers who can make effective presentations on child safety issues and prevention strategies.

Law enforcement agencies can request the services of Project ALERT by contacting NCMEC, which will donate all resource materials, make all travel arrangements, and pay for all travel costs.

Many nonprofit organizations located throughout the country are poised to help you find your missing child. Many organizations are devoted to the search for missing children. They can help distribute your child's poster, coordinate volunteer activities, locate the nearest bloodhounds, or find a parent of another missing child to give you advice and support. Contact NCMEC or the Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations (AMECO) to find out the names and telephone numbers of organizations that meet their requirements for certification or membership. You might also want to talk with your primary law enforcement contact and with other parents of missing children. Be wary of organizations that promise they can find your missing child, that request payment for these services, or that are unknown in this field.

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OJJDP Report: When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, May 1998