The Missing Americans Project

Looking for People and Answers

The first thing Leo Finley's friend, Lori Young, asked me was, "Do you ever find anyone alive?"

Man! My first thought was: "My God! She thinks we're a bunch of professionals doing this!"

I had to answer her honestly, that in our extensive experience of less than a year, we've had few, if any, happy endings. There were the girls in Ecuador, but we weren't really involved in that; nor with the three guys who got into trouble between Belize and Roatan (the girlfriend of one of the guys spotted them from a rented plane and they were rescued); nor Ernest Williams, the conch doryman who drifted for 11 to 18 days in the same waters my brother Joe was missing in before being found -- the day before the U.S. military called off its search for Joe after four days. No one was looking for Mr. Williams. He got lucky. "Our people" and "our families" have not been so lucky.

So, why am I hopeful?

Well, it's the little things. The small signs of progress. David Gimelfarb was missing nearly two weeks before we learned of his case and were able to reach out to his best friend, Chris Shaw, and offer our help and whatever benefit we could from our experience. By the time we met Cindy Scheepstra , her husband Ron had been missing a month longer than Joe. Then came Michael Dixon, missing in Costa Rica, about 50 miles from where David had disappeared. We learned about this case a bit sooner, were able to pitch in with advice, contacts, whatever help we could.

And now, Leo Finley -- lost from Roatan, Honduras, on Christmas morning ... our first Christmas without Joe, who disappeared from the other end of the island on Mother's Day of 2009. In less than a week, Leo's family found us and we were able to save them a bit of scavenging and wheel reinvention. This is progress.

Leo's picture is on the U.S. Embassy's Missing Americans web page -- it took us two weeks after Joe's disappearance to discover the existence of this page and bring its existence to the attention of our Embassy contacts. This is progress. Baby steps.

Along the way, we have met people who are motivated by their own losses or those of their friends to help us build awareness of the ongoing problem of U.S. citizens disappearing in Central America and U.S. State Department indifference to their plight. More baby steps.

And the sad fact is, there will be more baby steps -- more bereft families and empty seats at holiday dinner tables -- before the Missing Americans Project gains the mass and the visibility needed to generate its first happy ending. Every family will add a strand to our network of support until we actually do succeed in creating the rapid-response capability so desperately required to spring into action when someone disappears in these infrastructurally challenged parts of the world.

So, I am hopeful. And I am thankful for the relationships we've been able to establish with nonprofit organizations like the Down East Emergency Medicine Institute and Volunteer Image Analysts for Search and Rescue and VK9 Scent Specific Search and Recovery and the countless individuals and groups that have come our way to help as we stumble through the most painful education any of us has ever had to endure.

There will be more tears in 2010, of that I have no doubt; but there also will be reasons for hope and gratitude.

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