Former pitcher expanding efforts to find missing children

Former pitcher expanding efforts to find missing children

By Joe Koch, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In baseball, a save is prized. The word holds even more meaning when former minor-league pitcher Dennis Bair talks about the work he’s doing with his BairFind Foundation.

Now in its 10th year, the BairFind Foundation uses a unique method to call attention to the epidemic of missing children in the United States. The 36-year-old Munhall resident has gained the assistance of professional baseball teams, asking the organizations to sponsor poster giveaways of team photos with a missing child’s photo included in a corner.

Mr. Bair, who advanced to the Class AA level as a pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization, began his program in 2001 while a member of the Canton Crocodiles of the Frontier League. Initially, he was working on his own, but received a boost this year when BairFind was awarded nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service, qualifying as a 501(c)(3) organization. He now has a small staff working with him. Jonathan Wayne, a lifetime friend of Mr. Bair, has designed the organization’s website Two Daytona Beach, Fla., men, Nate Fincher and Jay Triplett, both of whom teach at Atlantic High School in Port Orange, Fla., design the posters. Mr. Bair coached baseball with Mr. Fincher at Atlantic High School.

BairFind is funded through donations and corporate sponsorships. All donations are tax deductible. Over the years, Mr. Bair has put some of his own money into the venture. In the early days, Office Depot in Homestead donated the printing for several posters.

The assist from the IRS couldn’t have come at a better time. Mr. Bair no longer could pursue his career as a pitcher because of shoulder injuries. Since retiring from baseball in Shreveport, La., following the 2003 season, he has worked as a pitching coach at Steel Valley and Allderdice high schools in the Pittsburgh area and Atlantic High School in Port Orange, Fla.. He recently opened Three Rivers Batting Cages on Curry Hollow Road in Pleasant Hills.

“After I lost my career, it was difficult to do well enough to make a living and promote my program at the same time,” he said. “But now that we’re a 501(c)(3), I can find corporate sponsors, and that’s how it works. The minor-league teams have found [poster] sponsors in their own cities.”

Mr. Bair got the idea for his organization because of a chance viewing of a television documentary about missing children and the discovery of a long-forgotten autographed picture of former Pittsburgh Steelers great Rocky Bleier.

“These parents [in the documentary] spent money on fliers trying to find their 13-year-old daughter who went to a Pearl Jam concert and never came home,” he said. “They passed the fliers out, and people would throw them away.”

The featured couple eventually lost their jobs and their home and had to move in with friends. Their child has never been found.

“For whatever reason, that just stuck with me because I was one of those persons who would throw the missing-children fliers away when they came in the mail,” he said.

His outlook changed when he found the autographed photo of Mr. Bleier while clearing out a room in his mother’s house.

“I was a professional athlete who signed autographs, and I still had an autographed photo of Rocky Bleier. And then I knew that if there was a photo of a missing child in the corner of that autographed photo, I’d still have that child’s picture. It wouldn’t be out there for just two days and off the news. It would be in our consciousness that we need to find this child.”

Seven minor-league teams have stepped up to join BairFind’s poster giveaway, including the Bradenton Marauders, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Class A affiliate in the Florida State League. Once a team agrees to participate, Mr. Bair contacts Patti Willingham, case management operations manager of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to forward information about a missing child in the team’s area.

“All of the information on our posters is relevant, credible and current,” he said.

Mr. Bair said he finds fans’ reaction at a poster giveaway interesting.

“They’ll stare at the poster, and then they’ll look at the picture of the missing child,” he said. “Then you see the moment where all of it clicks together.”

BairFind has helped locate six missing youngsters. The quickest turnaround took place two months ago when a child featured on a poster sponsored by the Marauders was found nine days after the poster giveaway.

The missing child, Samantha Caudill of Bradenton, Fla., was a runaway. She was found in Englewood, Fla.

The three main types of missing children are parental abduction, runaways and stranger abduction/endangered missing, Mr. Bair said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said 27 children have been declared missing from Pennsylvania in the past 20 years. These cases have remained open and continue to be followed. They include Melvin Bowles of Ambridge, who hasn’t been seen since July 23, 2010; Genelle Bradford, missing since April 27, 1999; Jesus Maria Figueroa of Mars, missing since Aug. 3, 2011; William Majewski of McKees Rocks, missing since Nov. 9, 1991; Jerome Morris of Pittsburgh, missing since Aug. 1, 1990; Cherrie Mahan of Pittsburgh, missing since Feb. 22, 1985; Stefanie C. Mills of Pittsburgh, missing since March 3, 2002; Jerome Morris of Pittsburgh, missing since Aug. 1, 1990; Rodney Owens of Pittsburgh, missing since Nov. 6, 2010; and Laura Lynn Thompson of New Castle, missing since Jan. 7, 1993.

According to statistics on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that 797,500 people under the age of 18 were reported missing in a one-year period. That averages out to about 2,185 children each day. The justice department said that, among the report totals, 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions, while another 58,200 children were victims of non-family abductions. An additional 115 children were victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping where the child was taken by someone the child doesn’t know or is a slight acquaintance.

The foundation worked solely with minor-league teams until a few weeks ago, when the Pirates erected a sign at PNC Park near a food court anchored by Primanti Bros. Restaurant.

The sign, sponsored by Century 3 KIA of West Mifflin and designed by Mr. Fincher and Mr. Triplett, features 10 missing children. Four of them – Mahan, Morris, Bradford and Mills – are from the Pittsburgh area. Prominently displayed is BairFind’s slogan, “Bring Home 100,” with the hope that at least 100 missing youngsters will be returned to their families.

Mr. Bleier was amazed that his autographed picture to an enthusiastic fan has touched off an effort to find missing children.

“A lot of Steelers have signed autographs,” Mr. Bleier said. “But you never know how you’ve touched someone’s life until you hear about something like this.”

Mr. Bleier, now a motivational speaker, hopes Mr. Bair’s program continues to grow. He believes BairFind’s campaign calls attention to an overlooked issue.

“It’s a bigger problem than the average person realizes,” he said. “It’s not just missing children, but it’s also the trafficking of children, which is heinous, but it exists on the streets. What Dennis is doing is making the problem of missing children tangible to people. You can’t relate to a milk carton, but when you have a signed photo with a child’s picture on the photo, the idea of people trafficking children is going to be on your mind.”

Cleveland resident Nancy Ruiz knows all too well the heartache of a missing child. Her 14-year-old daughter, Gina DeJesus, was abducted on April 2, 2004, while walking home from school with a friend.

“They stopped at a pay phone, and the friend called her house to see if she could come over to our house,” Ms. Ruiz said. “The friend’s mom said no, so they separated at West 105th Street and Lorain Avenue. After that, Gina just vanished. No one’s seen her since.”

Ms. Ruiz said Mr. Bair contacted her three years ago and talked with her about his organization. Two years ago, the Akron Aeros, a Class AA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, held a poster giveaway that featured Gina’s photo. The Aeros held another poster giveaway this summer with Gina’s picture in the upper right corner and an age-progressed artist’s rendering of what she might look like today. Gina’s picture is one of the 10 featured on the PNC Park sign.

“People don’t throw autographed posters away,” Ms. Ruiz said. “It’s been seven years, but I don’t want people to forget my daughter. Dennis remembers her every year.”

Ms. Ruiz, agrees with Mr. Bleier that her daughter likely was a victim of human trafficking.

Ms. Ruiz said she considers Mr. Bair a member of her family.

“He came out of nowhere and said he would help us,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to forget about my daughter, and Dennis helps us every year.”

Mr. Bair is moved each time he attends a poster giveaway.

“I wear sunglasses to these events because I stand there and cry,” he said. “I’ve had players walk up to me with tears in their eyes. Everyone associated with a team believes this must be a national program.”

Mr. Bair approaches his program as if each missing child is his own, and he said the feeling he gets when a child is found is greater than what he experienced when throwing a no-hitter.

“I wonder about the thousands of ballplayers who go through stadiums each year, and I was the one who God gave this idea to. I take it as a blessing. If God has given me this idea, then he considers me the man for the job and he’s going to give me whatever I need to get it done.”

Joe Koch, freelance writer:

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