They know each other by now, some by scanning the other’s shirt.
“Yes, I am still missing,” they read, above a portrait of a smiling woman, the distinct gap between her teeth on display. Or “STILL MISSING,” they’ll say, above a list of letters and numbers — DOB 12/05/87, 5’11, 170, missing since 07/08/07, followed by the phone number of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department.
Some recognize each other. She has the same wavy curls Kellisue had, or has — no one knows which tense to use.
The annual New York State Missing Persons Day brings them all together in one room for an afternoon of reflection, remembrance and updates on missing persons awareness efforts. But really, they spend all their time together in spirit, from all corners of the state and beyond, because they’re the only ones who understand the unique grief that manifests in the relative or friend of a missing person.
“Each one of us brings a story, the story of our sorrow, the story of our survival and our need for hope and healing,” said Sandra Morton from the podium at the New York State Museum’s Cultural Education Center on Saturday. “We come here to be with people who understand our struggle and our hurt. We come into this room with hope, and we are gathered in the pursuit of answers. We have come to search for understanding and support. Here, we will find strength and inspiration in each other.”
Morton’s sister, Suzanne Lyall, went missing 15 years ago — March 2, 1998 — somewhere between the software store where she worked and her dorm room at the University at Albany. Police suspect homicide. Her parents Doug and Mary Lyall, of Milton, have never given up searching for her. But of course, no parent ever would.
The Lyalls have organized the annual Missing Persons Day ceremony for the last 12 years now. Filling auditorium seats are parents, siblings, grandparents and friends of the missing. They wear T-shirts and sweaters emblazoned with their loved ones’ faces and statistics. They nod in understanding when Doug Lyall says that with each answer come more questions. They lean into each other when Garland Nelson belts out “Lean on me,” the Saratoga Springs singer slapping a tambourine in rhythm.
And they have a special friend in Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, who emcees the annual event and has helped push through legislation that fast-tracks the search for missing persons on college campuses. He is also working to increase the penalties for violent crimes committed on and near campuses.
“People are often unaware of the changes in a grieving person’s perception of the world when there is no body and no answers,” said Mary Lyall. “For many in traumatic grief, the world is no longer a safe place to be. Among the missing are runaways, those abducted by family members, acquaintances or strangers, and those like our daughter, who vanished mysteriously with little or no trace. One thing’s for certain, no matter what the outcome, our lives will never be the same.”
The Lyalls have offered families some ways to cope. They founded the nonprofit Center for HOPE, which occupies a suite in Ballston Spa’s Chocolate Factory and provides support and first-hand advice about what to do and expect after a family member goes missing.
The center draws about 1,000 calls per year from families across the country, and receives referrals from law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The center was responsible for launching the New York State Playing Card Program, which portrays a missing person profile on custom-designed playing cards that are distributed throughout the county jail system.
Similar cards have been used in Florida’s state prison system, and have helped yield answers in cold cases, unsolved murders and missing person cases.
Even though the cards have provided leads in New York, Doug Lyall said the program has reached a plateau in the last year.
“It’s not working as well as we would like to have it work,” he said. “We haven’t been able to get the program implemented into the state prison system, which last I heard was up to about 60,000 inmates.”
But the Lyalls are shifting their attention toward a new program, one they hope to debut in September in the Capital District. They’ve teamed up with DeCrescente Distributing Co., a Mechanicville beverage distributor, to produce and distribute missing persons coasters to 1,500 area bars and restaurants.
“Once this takes place and is successful, this will be a pilot program that hopefully could be implemented in other places across the state and across the country,” said Doug Lyall.
By displaying the information in new ways and more places, the hope, as always, is that people won’t forget.