Head of local missing children group calls Cleveland rescue a ‘miracle’

Head of local missing children group calls Cleveland rescue a ‘miracle’


bair-find_originalBy Kaitlynn Riely / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was a moment Dennis Bair couldn’t believe happened and one he was always convinced would come to pass.

That someday, Gina DeJesus, the Cleveland girl who went missing at age 14 and whose photo the Squirrel Hill man pushed to have displayed on stadium concourses, game programs and Jumbotron scoreboards, would be found. That she would be alive. That she would be returned to a family who never stopped looking for her.

That happened Monday, when Ms. DeJesus and two other young women were found, alive, in a house in Cleveland, finally freed after about a decade of being held against their will.

“I just, I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Bair said. “It’s just a miracle.”

In recent years, Mr. Bair has made it his mission to create more of these types of miracles, by founding the BairFind Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to find missing children and teens by displaying their photographs where many people will see them: sporting events.

“We take the profiles of missing kids, and we put them where the people are, and that’s in sports stadiums and arenas,” he said.

The concept came to Mr. Bair, now 38, about 16 years ago. He happened to watch a documentary about parents searching for their missing children, trying to convince people to save fliers with pictures of their lost loved ones, and then he found in his childhood bedroom an old autographed photograph of former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier.

He’d saved the poster for years, and it occurred to him that if a picture of a missing child had been included on the poster, he might still remember the child’s face, and that might make a difference in finding him or her. He put his idea into practice in the minor leagues, adding photographs of missing children onto team poster signs.

The technique, he discovered, worked. Children were being found. His organization obtained nonprofit status in 2011, with Mr. Bleier serving as vice chair of the board. The BairFind Foundation has posted the profiles of missing children at venues including Heinz Field and PNC Park.

Within his organization, Mr. Bair has promoted a campaign, called BringHome100, to find that many missing children. Sixteen of the 100 missing children had been found, and with the discovery on Monday of Ms. DeJesus and Amanda Berry, two more of the featured children were added to Mr. Bair’s found list, bringing the total to 18.

For years, Mr. Bair worked closely with the DeJesus family to find their daughter, who was reported missing April 2, 2004. Just three weeks ago, Mr. Bair attended a Cleveland Cavaliers game with the DeJesus family where her photo was displayed.

Mr. Bair, who coaches freshman baseball at Peters Township High School, had just finished coaching a game Monday when friends in Florida sent him a text message saying Ms. DeJesus had been located. Mr. Bair confirmed the news and called Nancy Ruiz, the mother of Gina DeJesus.

She answered, and they both started laughing and crying. Mr. Bair did not ask her any personal questions about her daughter’s experience or condition, but said he could hear her relief over the phone.

“She had a peace in her voice. You could tell in her voice that everything was right,” he said.

Mr. Bair said he believes the case underscores the importance of his organization’s work.

Showing Gina DeJesus’ photo at sporting events gave her family hope and reassurance that people were still looking for their daughter. And as Ms. DeJesus begins the healing process, knowing that her family never gave up hope of finding her alive will be a great boon, Mr. Bair said.

“Now, she can look and see, my family has been fighting for me,” he said. “My family never gave up on me.”

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. Associated Press contributed.
First Published May 8, 2013 12:00 am