Former minor league pitcher’s nonprofit works to reunite missing children and their families

Former minor league pitcher’s nonprofit works to reunite missing children and their families

By Max Marbut, Staff Writer, Jacksonville Financial News & Daily Record

“If I hadn’t been injured, it wouldn’t have happened” and “I decided it was my job to do.”

That’s how Dennis Bair describes events leading to starting BairFind Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to reuniting missing children with their families.

Drafted in 1995 by the Chicago Cubs organization, Bair pitched in the minor leagues until he injured his throwing shoulder during spring training in 1997.

During his rehabilitation, there was plenty of time to watch television. One day while channel-surfing, he ran across a documentary that caught his attention.

It told the story of a couple whose daughter disappeared and the effect it had on their family.

“They were an affluent, happy family until the day their 13-year-old daughter didn’t come home from a Pearl Jam concert,” said Bair.

The documentary showed how the parents turned the search for their daughter into their only mission, which eventually led to them losing their jobs and their home.

The scene that really hit home for Bair was a shot of a trash can full of the missing-child flyers the couple had made and then distributed hoping someone would recognize their daughter.

“That gave me an idea,” he said.

Something he noticed while traveling around minor-league ballparks was how fans treasured team posters, so Bair promoted the idea of placing photographs and information about missing children on the team souvenirs.

When he returned to the mound in 2000, Bair convinced the owner of the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles to be the first to feature missing children on the team poster.

It worked.

Bair said one of two missing girls who appeared on the poster was found.

“If I hadn’t been injured, that wouldn’t have happened,” said Bair.

The program has since grown to 40 minor league teams, said foundation Executive Director Ellen Sullivan.

She’s a former Florida Blue executive who joined the foundation in June when Bair moved the headquarters to Jacksonville after he became the pitching coach at the Florida Baseball Academy in St. Augustine.

In addition to team posters, minor league clubs are placing signs with pictures of missing children and information about the foundation on their concourses during games.

Sullivan said since 2010, 65 of the 278 missing children who have been featured on posters and signs have been found. She said the long-term visibility of a sports souvenier ensures missing children won’t be forgotten a few days or weeks after they vanish.

“Any family with a missing child will tell you how hard it is to keep the child in front of the public,” she said.

That’s been the experience for the family and friends of Mark Degner and Bryan Hayes, two friends who on Feb. 10, 2005, didn’t come home from Paxon Middle School. They are still missing.

“The only way missing kids are found is by keeping them in the public eye,” said Angela Campbell, Degner’s aunt.

Campbell is business manager at Bailey Publishing and Communications, which publishes the Daily Record, and a member of the foundation’s board of directors.

She said for the past nearly 11 years, the families of the missing boys have sought continuing attention, particularly on the boys’ birthdays and the anniversary of their disappearance.

“The media has been so kind to our family, but if it’s not news, it’s hard to get the story out there,” said Campbell.

“You never give up hope, but as time goes by, you begin to question,” she said. “If this organization can put their picture out there every day, it can’t hurt.”

Bair is planning a substantial expansion of the program for the 2016 minor league baseball season.

He and Sullivan attended the recent winter meeting of team owners and returned to Jacksonville optimistic about the future of the foundation’s public outreach.

“Minor league folks understand the value of community efforts,” Bair said. “I think we could have signs in all 160 minor league ballparks next year.”

Sullivan said that will take support from donors and sponsors and that will be the foundation’s focus in its new home.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of success, but we haven’t done much fundraising,” she said.

Campbell said Bair asked her to join the board because he wanted a first-hand perspective on missing children. She agreed as a way to help other families deal with their loss.

“My heart wants Mark and Bryan to be found,” she said. “But if I can be part of helping somebody find their child, I’m all for it.”

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