09 Jan Baseball keeps memory of missing children alive
By Emelia Hitchner, St. Augustine Record
For the families of missing children, hope can be a fleeting emotion. Long after news stations have moved onto fresher stories and fliers have faded from weather and time, the sense of loss lingers.
That was the case, at least, before one man figured a simple way to spotlight the faces of missing children to millions of people visiting baseball stadiums across the country.
“I realized that as a pitcher, I was in a stadium every night with several thousands of people. I thought it was the perfect place to have signage of missing kids, so all the people could see what kids were missing from the area,” said Dennis Bair, a former minor league baseball player and the founder of the BairFind Foundation. “And then the parents wouldn’t have to spend all their money to make it happen.”
It was toward the end of his pitching career that Bair, a Jacksonville resident and pitching coordinator for the Florida Baseball Academy in St. Augustine, was inspired by a documentary depicting a family’s struggle to keep the search for their missing daughter alive.
“They didn’t have an effective way to keep their daughter’s photo in the public so people were still conscious she was missing and needed to be found,” Bair said.
Before a series of shoulder surgeries disabled his athletic career, Bair was a pitcher drafted by the Chicago Cubs and player for several minor league teams. When he wasn’t on the mound, he was participating in community events with his teammates.
“I just saw the influence we had,” he said. “When you’re out in the community as a starting pitcher, you say ‘jump’ and the kids say ‘how high?’”
His concept for BairFind is simple: profile the photographs of missing children on custom a-frame signs in high-traffic areas of sports stadiums.
Bair said more than 40 million people are attracted per year to minor league baseball games across the nation. With each team playing 70 home games per season, the flow of visitors is never-ending.
“That’s more than the NBA and NFL combined,” he said.
So far, the foundation has placed signs in 139 of the 160 minor league baseball stadiums.
“So our signs of missing kids were viewed by 30 million people across the country this past summer,” Bair said.
More than 180 of 500 featured children were safely located during the 2016 season.
“The more eyes looking at the profiles, the more you’re increasing the chance someone will recognize the face and call in a tip,” he said.
It’s a way to keep the hope alive for families who are discouraged by dead ends and time, said Angela Campbell, board member for BairFind.
“Sometimes you get down when it’s been a long time,” said Campbell, whose nephew went missing in Jacksonville 12 years ago. “There are moments the doubt creeps in.”
Campbell’s nephew, Mark Degner, was 12 years old when he vanished with his friend Bryan Hayes from Paxon Middle School in 2005. Her family has fought to keep the boys’ names fresh in the media.
Through BairFind, Degner’s information is displayed throughout 10 stadiums along the east coast.
“It just provides so much hope,” Campbell said. “Like no matter how much time has gone by, you do whatever you need to do to keep hope alive.”
Last year, the BairFind Foundation was named an official “Homegrown” Charity Partner of Minor League Baseball and was awarded the Baseball’s Presidential Citation by Minor League President Pat O’ Conner.
Despite the accomplishments, Bair is determined to finish placing his concourse signs in the rest of the baseball stadiums. He said the foundation is in need of national sponsors to help fund the production and placing of the signs.
“This is hope for families. Their child’s photo can remain in the public,” he said “It’s not a flier that will be torn down and thrown into the trash.”
For more information on BairFind, go to www.bairfind.org.
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