(Introduction to show begins)
TODD: I’m Todd Matthews. This is Missing Pieces. Tonight we have LaDonna Meredith with ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’. Welcome LaDonna.
LADONNA: Thank you.
TODD: How are you doing?
LADONNA: I’m doing well. I’m excited to be a part of this tonight.
TODD: You’re my guest from Arkansas, my neighboring state.
LADONNA: Fayetteville, Arkansas.
TODD: Fayetteville, Arkansas… big town.
LADONNA: Well, it’s growing, it is. The metro area of northwest Arkansas is fairly large, several hundred thousand people, so it’s grown tremendously in the past 10 years.
TODD: Well, there’s probably not that many people in my entire 14-region area, I’m going to tell you, so it’s a big town to us.
LADONNA: Oh, wow… okay.
TODD: Now, how long have you been at ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’? You’ve got an organization… how long has this been in…?
LADONNA: We do. We are just under… formally being formed as an organization… we are almost a year old…
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: …however, the concept of ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ is almost 4 years old.
TODD: Okay, where did it begin?
LADONNA: Well, you know, it began very simply, and I like to tell people it began around my dining room table, which is partially true. Everybody that’s involved in this organization has served, in one capacity or another, as a volunteer, through other organizations that serve the families of missing children and adults.
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: So it was a very natural thing for us to come together and that’s really what happened. We saw a need, not that needs are not being met, but this was something… what we do is so unique. So we came together and we talked about what we wanted to contribute and how we could supplement what’s already out there, and that’s really how ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ came about.
TODD: You know, a lot of organizations are that, everybody’s got their own reason for having been there and then you bring these to another organization, you find a niche, like with the Doe Network, we found a niche… there was a need and we tried to need with that. You have to do something, you know, when you see a need. Okay, I’m seeing that you are also involved with ‘Outpost For Hope’…
LADONNA: Yes, I’m excited about that. That is a project…I met Libba Phillips… just through the course of the past year of ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ and contacts that I’ve made and we hoped to find a project that made sense for both of us and she approached me with ‘The Perception Project’ and I was just on board with it almost immediately. I took it to my board of directors and we have just embraced it. It’s a very important project, I think for, you know, not just people like you and I who are already involved in this world of missing adults and children, but for the nation and the world as a whole so they could grab the concept of what the word ‘lost’ means. The definition is so broad and if we can bring light on a broader scope to this social epidemic, with ‘The Perception Project’, I think that at the end of the day, we’ll feel really good about what we’ve done. So we’re really excited about the project.
TODD: Well, you’ve got a good partner with Libba, I’ve known her for a long time. She’s an old friend of mine and I’m glad to get to mention her because I’m hoping to have her for an upcoming guest.
LADONNA: Oh, she’d be great.
TODD: Oh yeah. She’s really good… she’s a good public speaker.
LADONNA: She is and Libba and I just clicked on a professional level and on a friendship level so I’m excited. You know she’s been able to educate me on some thing that I had no idea about and I think, in turn, I’m gong to be able to do the same thing for her and that’s what a good collaboration is all about and, you know, that’s what ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ is all about. We want to collaborate and work with organizations and families and people all across the United States and the world. You know, to supplement what’s already being done… there’s a lot of organizations that, for years, they’ve just been doing terrific work.
TODD: I’m seeing a lot of familiar faces on your website. April Beth Pitzer (case featured in Episode 14) , I know her… so I’m seeing a lot of people that I’ve kind of run into before… their families, some former guests, it’s really encouraging to see them here. You can’t do too much… there’s no way to have them overexposed. LADONNA: You know, I agree with that concept exactly. There is no way that any case can get too much exposure and one of the things that we do is, we limit that cases that we do take, not that we’ve turned anybody away, not that we would, but starting off as a fledgling organization, we’re really trying to take it slow and make sure that we’re dedicating the time and resources that we have as a new organization, to the cases that we take on. Our primary case right now has been, well there have been three, it’s the cases of Kent Jacobs and then Maura Murray and April Beth Pitzer.
TODD: So we can talk about Kent tonight, right?
TODD: Now, he’s from Cumberland County (North Carolina).
LADONNA: Yes, Kent went missing Sunday, March 10th, 2002 from Cumberland County, North Carolina…
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: He was a special-needs adult. He has the mentality of about a 9-year-old… could not sense danger, which is what happens in a lot of cases with special-needs adults and pretty much there has been some phenomenal work from a lot of organizations to help recover Kent, but it’s just, you know, they continue to hit dead ends. So, we met the Jacobs family about a year ago and corresponded with them through the telephone and through email for a year and then I actually flew to North Carolina, this past year, for his 5-year remembrance ceremony.
TODD: Now, aside from that, what can your organization do? You are in Arkansas… I think most of your members are in Arkansas, right, or are they spread out a little bit?
LADONNA: Most of everybody that we have that is actively involved and is on staff here… they are from right here in Arkansas. We hope to change that eventually but we’re taking in slow.
TODD: But right now you can gather round a table, and sometimes, that’s an advantage some times… it really is, because a lot of times I deal with people just on email and, you know, you can reach across the world with email but sometimes there’s nothing like that voice or looking across the table at somebody.
LADONNA: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things that’s been very important to what we do, simply because we are so involved with this PR end of these cases, to have our team right here where we can sit down and brainstorm together. So that’s, for now, that’s very crucial and it’s a benefit.
TODD: Okay, now I have to ask you… I’m going to ask you some questions and sometimes they might be a little difficult but people don’t know… what can you do in Arkansas to help a case like Kent Jacobs, you know, two states away? How do you approach that? How would you start working on that particular case?
LADONNA: You know, we do get asked that a lot. You know, how can we help a family if we’re in one state and they’re in another and here is the bottom line of what we can do… we offer resources and solutions and assistance and support…and we do that in the form of several different things. One is case management, that’s a lot of hands on, day-to-day interaction with the families and, in my experience, that’s 50% of the battle, with those families. They need to know that are organizations and people working on their behalf and that care outside of the immediate family and law enforcement. As far as our organization is concerned, and I can give you good example with Kent Jacobs, we have flown to North Carolina, we act as a liaison for the family between the media, and I can do that being in North Carolina or sitting here in my office in Arkansas. Now that’s a matter of handling all the PR through email or telephone. Then, also, what we’ve done, we create postcards, we offer rewards and we have an 800 number, that is a free, no-cost tip line that we offer for our cases and that has proven to be very, very successful to date.
TODD: Do you want to give the number right now?
LADONNA: Yes, I would love to. It is 1-866-479-LBTH (5284), and that’s the letters for ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’.
TODD: Very good. Now, I’m seeing that ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ has offered an additional reward fund in the Kent Jacobs’s case for $150,000 and that is specifically for a certain time period…March 10th through June 10th, 2007.
LADONNA: It is. We put a lot of thought into that and that’s one of the things that we do for the families for these cases that we take on. We sit down and we strategically plan what would be most beneficial for each and every case because every case, as you know Todd, is different.
LADONNA: And in Kent’s case, we fully believe that this could end tomorrow for the Jacobs family. There is somebody there in the Cumberland County area that has the answer, and we sat down and we decided that the best thing that can happen, after talking with law enforcement, obviously, and with the family, was to offer a large reward.
TODD: Now, this reward, I’m thinking that the reason that you have this time period, it’s to create a sense of urgency.
LADONNA: Absolutely! It’s been 5 years… it’s been 5 years too long and we want people to understand that this reward is for a short amount of time, they need to take it seriously, because it will go away. It’s going to go away in June, and so we know that people are motivated by 2 things Todd, they’re motivated by money or they’re motivated my conscience, and what we’re trying to hit right now is a select group of people that we know has the answer in Kent’s disappearance, because we know that they are motivated my money. So that was the thought process behind this reward. When we offered the reward, we did not realize that it was one of the largest rewards that had ever been offered in that state. That was a sort of a plus for me to realize, it truly was and we had a donor step forward that offered it for a 3-month period and we just kind of sat back and some of the leads have been coming in that we hoped for and, you know, we hope that some more things will happen between now and that June 10th at midnight mark.
TODD: So, if I’m sitting on a tip and I’m thinking about just hanging on to it for a little while longer, maybe waiting for a raise in the reward, I’m seeing this reward that’s actually going to vanish on midnight of June 10th and I’m thinking, hmmm, and everyday that passes, a little more of an urgency that comes over me. I need to claim this if I’m going to claim it.
LADONNA: Exactly and we also hope that it will do something else. We also believe fully that there are people that know the people who know something or who were involved in Kent’s disappearance and we want pressure to be put on the right people who know something and $150,000, well that’s a lot of reasons to come forward or to come tell what you know. And so we hope that it would motivate somebody and then put pressure on the people who were responsible for Kent’s disappearance.
TODD: Are you involved in the ‘Safety Matters’ program with Kent Jacobs?
LADONNA: I am and I am so excited about this project.
LADONNA: That’s another thing that ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ does.
TODD: Tell me about being responsible… Number One…
LADONNA: Well, the safety tips, just so we can backtrack a little bit, are geared fort special-needs adults and children.
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: And the program, in and of itself, is to be taught by caregivers or organizations that serve mentally-disabled adults and children. So the program is not necessarily just about being safe from abduction but it’s being safe in general. The point number one, of being responsible, is just to remind these adults and children to always check in with their guardian before they go anywhere or do anything… they need to check in regularly.
TODD: Basically trust their guardians.
TODD: And the ‘Don’t be tricked’. And you know, I think, special-needs adults, we’ve encountered this several times with missing persons cases… it happens a lot more often than people might think with special-needs adults, so it’s real important that people understand this. Don’t be tricked, lured in, accept treat, rides…
LADONNA: And, you know, never accept anything from anyone without their parents’ or guardian’s permission. That’s just key. You know, another point about this program, is this Todd, it’s that the educators or the adults or the caregiver or the guardian is responsible for conveying this curriculum to the students. It’s also educating themselves on some points that, perhaps, they didn’t know before.
TODD: And it puts them in sync too, so they know what each other, they know what everybody’s check points are because I know that when I’m concerned about something with my child, we might not necessarily be concerned about the things. You know, he’s got his own little world and I’ve got mine. I’ve got a 15-year-old and a 5-year-old and they’ve got different minds… they have completely…
LADONNA: Absolutely they do and, you know, we’re fully aware that these points will not be grasped in full, maybe not every point, by the students, the adults or the child but if they pick up one or two of these and the guardian or caregiver is educated then this program has done its job. And the exciting thing about it is, there’s no other program like this in the nation and we’ve had a focus group of mental-health caregivers overlook the program and then we’re meeting people from across the nation who are taking a look at this program and helping us continue to model it and mould it into something that can be used in classrooms for special-needs adults and children all across the United States.
TODD: Well, I’m talking about it quite a bit because we transcribe the shows, I think most of our guests know, they’re actually transcribed by a lot of our volunteers, actually transcribe these, and I want to make sure that these 8 points get embedded, once again, in that text, I think that that’s a really good thing. Now, you’re talking about ‘Be interactive with your caregiver’, ‘Wear reflectors’, now you have to provide those for them before they can make sure that they wear them with their protective clothing. ‘Be smart in the dark’, you’ve got some really good points here.
LADONNA: Right. Number 3 was ‘Stay safe’. There are some situations where the mentally disadvantaged or disabled person is able to have the capacity to actually stay at home alone so we’re just reminding them to keep the door locked, not to open the door for anyone who stops by unless it is a person who’s trusted, you know, a family friend or a relative or if there is a list that has already been provided by the caregiver… just some simple things to keep the student from being confused or uncomfortable or scared.
TODD: Well, there’s room for a little customization, you know, you interpret them your own way in your own situation.
LADONNA: Absolutely and that’s so important. Number 4 is ‘Don’t panic if you feel lost’. You know, if you can ahead of time, identify the safest place to find help for somebody that is out in public, like a police officer, a grocery story clerk or anyone working in a store behind the counter with an apron or a badge… you have prevented so many issues that could come into play. Number 5 is ‘Be careful’, you know, stay away from pools, canals and other bodies of water, don’t play near the street, those are pretty basic tips but they’re important. Number 6, I think we touched on that, ‘Be smart’, don’t wear clothes or carry items with your name on the outside. One of the things that we were very clear on is ‘Don’t be confused if a person you don’t know, calls out your name’. We actually go in and teach this curriculum and talk to organizations, like ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ will actually facilitate a program for caregivers so they can implement this program. What we tell them is that, it’s very important to keep the special-needs adult or child on track and to tell relatives and friends and loved-ones not to get them off-course if they see them out in public… it can confuse them and we fully believe that that is a possibility in Kent Jacobs’s case.
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: And perhaps, you know, if they had had a program like this in the beginning that we wouldn’t be where we’re at today with Kent’s case. You can’t say that 100% but it sure would be nice to know that these points are being taught in classrooms and organizations.
TODD: Well, if there had been a guideline for somebody to follow, you know you might have had some better idea of how better to find him, you know, to look for him, where to go.
TODD: ‘Be smart in the dark’. We’ve covered that with the reflectors and try not to play outside after dark and ‘Don’t be afraid’… and this is Number 8, ‘Don’t be afraid to say “No” and get away’. Now, that happens.
LADONNA: It does happen and one of the things that we want to convey that’s so important, is to empower, you know you don’t want to cripple these adults and kids with fear, you want empower them to make good decisions. It’s empowering to say “it’s alright to say ‘no’ if you feel scared, uncomfortable or confused. It’s okay to say “no” and to run away. It’s okay and you know that’s a very simple tactic and you know I taught that to my children when they were 9 and 7, so that’s something that all of us can walk away from and use.
TODD: Okay, I’m going to solicit you, now I’m going to try something. My mother-in-law actually works in a special-needs home where they actually live in their own home, they’re adults and the caregivers are there 24 hours a day but they take 8-hour shifts, obviously, and of course, they have their own home, their own rooms and everything... they actually go to work with special-needs-oriented jobs. How do I get some of this type of information to her? Do I just print it off the website or is there something you put together? It’s a group home. I think there’s like 4 adults there… what would I do?
LADONNA: Well, there are 2 different things that you can do. One, is that if you visit the website for the Safety Matters Program, www.kentjacobs.com, it’s his namesake, if you go to the program link; there is a place that you can actually download the program kit free of charge. It is completely free, it’s curriculum ideas and caregivers and organizations can just print it off. And then we have contact information for people who want to order materials or request training. So that’s what we do. We can come to where they are at, if they request us to come to fly in to help and host a training conference, we can do that. So everything that we provide with this program is completely free, so we don’t charge for travel, we don’t charge the materials and we don’t charge for training, so it’s completely free. It’s just a click away. Just download it or give us a call and we can help.
TODD: Okay, so now I’m downloading the program now, as we speak. It’s a PDF file, it’s really simple and we will probably have this in place by the weekend at the group home where my mother-in-law works.
LADONNA: That’s exciting and…
TODD: So, we’ve already got something going. I think that’s good.
LADONNA: I think that’s great and this program also is… it’s evolving a bit so as the programs continues to… you know, we’re going to include some more worksheets, some more interactive information and some more guidelines as our taskforce evolves and we will continue to update the website and we’ll put… it’s still going to be on that link, it’s still going to be downloadable in the PDF format. One of the exciting things that is happening with this program, is that we have governors’ offices all across the United States… we have 10 right now, that are embracing this program and we’re working with these 10 states, 11 states to help implement this state wide. So our goal is, by 2009, to have this implemented in every state.
TODD: That would be great.
LADONNA: There’s no reason not to, it’s free.
TODD: And I’ve got your PDF file open now for the program… this looks like it’s going to be great. It’s just perfect. That’s going to be really good.
LADONNA: And that’s one of the things that we do with ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ Todd, is we take these cases on an individual basis and we ask, strategically, what can we do as an effort to prevent something that happened in this case, from ever happening again. And so that’s what… like I said, every case is different, but it made sense with Kent Jacobs’s case to do something that would be inspiring and uplifting and a positive namesake for his family and for his name. So that’s one of the things we’re really going to strive to do. It’s one thing to be retroactive and help when someone goes missing and it’s another thing to help build a positive legacy for these families and so we want to do a little bit of both.
TODD: Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s too late often. So, what’s March 10th?
LADONNA: March 10th? That’s Kent Jacobs’s missing date, that’s when he went missing in 2002.
TODD: It’s a ‘Safety Matters Day’ in Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa and West Virginia.
LADONNA: Yes, that’s one of the reasons we flew to North Carolina, we had been working, behind the scenes, to have March 10th date proclaimed ‘Safety Matters Day’ all across the United States. So, that was something we were able to present the family with proclamations from different states proclaiming ‘Safety Matters Day’. It was something really incredible for the family to have.
TODD: So, you work on one case and you actually take what you learn from one case over into another case.
LADONNA: Absolutely. It’s just a learning process.
LADONNA: We still have so much to learn.
TODD: Oh yeah, you never stop… just when you think you know it all, everything changes, technology changes and when the Internet came along, I remember actually having to drive a car to have to go physically into a library to look at what I wanted to look at and then, suddenly, it’s become just simple. You know, in a week, I can do what would have taken me more than a year before. It all changed in the blink of an eye. Tell me a little bit more about your work on April’s case, April Beth Pitzer.
LADONNA: We, um… her mother Gloria Denton actually lives here in Arkansas, a few hours away from us and, I believe that she was actually recommended to our organization through another prominent organization that is based in North Carolina, so we were able to meet with her. So what we’re doing in April Beth Pitzer’s case is, we are offering a reward for her… for April’s recovery and for the arrest and conviction of those involved in her disappearance. So, we’re working on flyers this week and we’re going to launch the reward and, then, we’re also working on a program called ‘April’s Hope’.
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: And, through ‘April’s Hope’, we are working to raise money to donate to Search and Rescue operations across the United States, for different equipment that is needed. It’s something that will be very positive and a namesake for April and it was something that we knew we wanted to be a part of.
TODD: And April’s case is a very interesting case too. We did an interview with her mother and we’ll link that, at this point in time, in the transcriptions so that people can reflect back on that because it’s part of the story. That’s why we call it ‘Missing Pieces’ because we’re connecting some of these things together and so you can you see how these cases do overlap.
LADONNA: Oh, that’s neat. That’ll be great for the viewers.
TODD: And the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, you know, we’ve talked to those guys before, David Van Norman with the coroner’s office, in fact, there’s a really great group of people out there. Now, the $25,000 reward for April’s case, now how did this come about?
LADONNA: Well, the $25,000 reward that’s being offered right now, was being offered prior to us being involved, so ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ is actually coming in and we’re offering a $50,000 reward for her, so that’s completely separate from anything that they had offered before.
TODD: So if I had a tip on this case, there’s potentially $75,000?
TODD: Seventy-five-thousand reasons for me to tell the truth.
LADONNA: Absolutely. Absolutely and, you know, we work very closely with the families, our insurance company and an attorney on the reward verbiage. We want to be very careful that everybody is on the same page and that everybody is protected, and if the tip does come in and that it’s paid out, so that families are not further victimized.
TODD: So there are specific criteria they have to reach…?
TODD: …to get the $75,000?
LADONNA: Absolutely. You know, obviously, we don’t… we want to just be very careful that people don’t wait to come forward because there’s a reward.
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: There are so many things that you have to be careful of when I comes to reward verbiage and, obviously, I believe that rewards often work, they get people talking and so I think it is an important aspect of any missing person’s case to pursue, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to prospect on our end, are the rewards that we are able to offer and that’s unique for such a fledgling organization to be able to do. We feel very blessed to be able to offer this to help these families.
TODD: That’s an impressive amount for the rewards. You must have to do a lot of sweet-talking.
LADONNA: We do, but we’re also… we’re covered up to $500,000 by an insurance policy that we take out so we actually pay for insurance on an annual basis so that we’re completely covered. So that is something unique that a lot of organizations may or may not be aware that is a possibility. This is something that we had research prior to actually starting ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ and we just really felt collectively, our board of directors felt collectively that it was something that we needed to do.
TODD: It sound like a very interesting idea. I had not heard of that before actually, with the insurance providing the reward money.
LADONNA: It is. You know, we have a percentage of the reward at any given time, in our bank account. I think there are different laws from state to state… I’m sure there has to be. So we have a percentage but then we also have our insurance, like I said, and then we have an attorney that we with and helps us so everybody’s protected, especially the families. That’s our main concern. We don’t want them to be further hurt, because if somebody does come forward with information and the criteria is met for the reward, we want to make sure that that is handled in the utmost professional manner. So the information is given to law enforcement and that the reward is paid out and there can be a recovery, if there is a recovery.
TODD: Now, let’s talk about Maura Murray. She disappeared Monday, February 9th, 2004, 7:30 p.m., after a minor accident. Tell us a little bit more about that case.
LADONNA: This case, um… this case, I’ve lost sleep over. I’ve lost sleep over all of cases but this one, particularly, is so puzzling, Todd. She was in a minor one-car accident…
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: …on Route 112, near Woodsville, New Hampshire. A witness states that he stopped and spoke with her and that he called police, and when they arrived 10 minutes later, she was missing… and since then, I mean, her credit cards haven’t been touched, there’s been no activity… there’ve been searches… nothing has been found. It’s really, really one of those cases, ‘what happened to Maura?’ It’s almost like she vanished into thin air. It’s very frustrating for the family. It’s something that we feel very passionate about being involved in. It’s difficult sometimes, to engage the media in a case like this, because she was in a one-car accident and I think everybody has their own theories. I guess, probably as they do in any missing person’s case, but it’s just such a unique thing to have happen… it just seems like there’s no explanation whatsoever. But we’re working really closely with her family to offer a reward and to launch a postcard campaign in the area where Maura went missing, and then I’m actually going to be flying to New Hampshire early in the fall to the area where Maura went missing to distribute flyers and to talk to the locals there and to host a press conference.
TODD: I hope to have one of her family members as a guest at some in time as well, but is there going to be a reward? You’re going to go early in the fall, so you’ve got something going on with it but can you talk about if you’re going to offer a reward in this case?
LADONNA: Yes, we are. We are actually working on those details right now. I’ve been working with Maura’s family this week to… we have gotten the reward verbiage from our attorney and have given in on to theirs and so, as soon as, you know, that can be signed off on by both parties, then we’ll move forward. We really hope to move and shake this case. I will say that the family has done a tremendous job, a lot of work, and has just worked tirelessly to keep Maura’s case in the media. So what we want to do is not say, “hey, we can do it better” because that’s not what we’re about but what we can say is, “let us help you, let us stand beside you and let’s continue to push forward.” So that is really what we want to do but we want to make a splash. We don’t want people to forget that Maura’s missing and, like I said, this is such a unique case that we really feel compelled that we need to actually set foot in New Hampshire… see where the car accident took place and get a better feel for what we are working with.
TODD: And there’s lots more information about all 3 of these cases: Kent Jacobs, Maura Murray and April Beth Pitzer on the ‘Let’s Bring Them Home’ website so if you want more information on those 3 cases, there’s lots of links, lots of information. I’m looking at your resources page, now, and you’ve got a little bit of something in every state… just about every state… there’s something there, some type of resource or somebody that can refer you to somebody else.
LADONNA: Absolutely. You know, we… that’s definitely our resources link is definitely a work in progress…
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: We want to make sure that… that we do 2 things… that we are always keeping the communication open with other organizations that are already doing great work because, you know, not one organization can do it all; it’s got to be a team effort. I think everybody’s who is in this line of work, knows we’re all on the same team and we just want to help support these families and help bring these missing people home. So we have a volunteer, he’s on our staff, who actually goes through different things on the Internet, goes through different resources and we try to add those, you know, update it every couple of weeks as we come across some and just so we can be a clearing house for resources. In our state, for instance, in Arkansas, although we help families that have missing adults and children, before we would take a case of a missing child, we would obviously go to the Morgan Nick Foundation first because that’s what they specialize in.
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: And make sure that they have the information if they don’t already have the case, and it they don’t already have the case, make sure that they have that case file and connect that family with the Morgan Nick Foundation. So, we’re always providing the best possible resources for that family.
TODD: And your team… your board of directors, of course, you’re LaDonna, you’re the PR consultant. You have Misty Meredith, the president; can you tell us a little bit more about her?
LADONNA: Yes. She, ironically, has the same last name because she is my sister-in-law and was very much inspired by the work that I had done over the years and wanted to get involved. She’s been a huge asset to our team. She brings… she’s responsible for the sponsorship side of things… she actually helps us raise the money that we need to make our programs work. Our main case consultant is Lanette Lopez and she has been with us from the beginning. I’ve known Lanette for about 15 years and she is phenomenal with these families… just phenomenal. We have an advisory board, which is Angie Baker and Mari See, who is not actually listed on here yet. Amy Smith is on our advisory board and she is also our McGruff Safe Kids partner; so she’s the prevention aspect of what we do. She goes into the public schools and she teaches the curriculum that helps keep children safe so that’s sort of the prevention end of it. And then we have 3 other board members and I don’t think that Spencer Brandkamp is listed but he is new to our board of directors and he just brings a wealth of information to what we do. He helps us to design all of our posters and different things that we offer the families, postcards and any design work that we have. Other people who are members are Milton Lamar and Mary Moebius. You know, just great people who have a heart for this particular cause and this mission and I think that’s what we need.
TODD: So, we’ve got you in trouble now with your board of directors who are not listed yet, so that’s on your to-do list now… (Laughter)
LADONNA: It is. I’m going to be doing it what I get home.
TODD: You’ll get that updated, you know, and you’ve just got 3 cases listed on your site but I’ve got a feeling, you’ve got more on the way.
LADONNA: We do. We do. We’ve actually… one of the reasons that we haven’t just jumped in really gung-ho…
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: …and taken on a bunch of cases is because, right now, we know that our resources are limited…
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: …and we are to the point where we could add more cases… you know, we would never tell a family “no”, so I do want to clarify that, but we… it was a slower process in some of these things, as far as forming our organization, than what we had anticipated. We wanted to make sure that it was all done correctly because, at the end of the day, our job is to protect these families from further victimization.
TODD: Well, and there’s different ways to approach this, with a lot of organizations, like the Doe Network, we try to paint with a broad brush, you know, because we’re trying to just touch as many people as possible and it’s also important to touch cases with a detailed brush and I think that’s what you’re doing… you’re trying to go in with more of a detailed approach and spend more time on each particular case and both ways to approach this are very important.
LADONNA: Oh, I think you’re exactly right. I think that those types of things compliment each other and that’s what the world needs and that’s… you know, we want to be very slow and methodical about this process. You know, we have a lot of projects that we are taking on and none of my staff is paid…
TODD: So you have 100% volunteer staff at this point in time?
LADONNA: Four staff members…
TODD: No, 100% volunteer… so no one’s getting paid anything?
LADONNA: Yes, nobody is getting paid anything, so every bit of money that we raise, right now, 100% of that money goes right back into the families, right back into the organizations that serve these families and to us, right now, that’s the most important thing. I’ve been blessed with a phenomenal staff; this is their passion and, you know, a lot of times their dedicating 30, 40, 50, 60 hours a week of their time.
TODD: Oh, and that’s easy to do. There’s times when you’re sitting there working and you think… you’re trying to look for a cut-off point just so you can go to bed and then just and get up and sometimes there’s stuff… you take it to bed with you. You can’t go to sleep because you keep working on it in your mind; it’s not an easy job, no matter what people think, it’s not easy. Just because you’re not out in the field looking, there’s a lot of things people do in their homes and it’s just hard to get off your mind at times.
LADONNA: Well, it is. For example, I needed a break… I’d been working 12 to 14 hour days and was invited to go to a concert here, locally, and I went and while we were there, an organization was allowed to bring in their special-needs adults…
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: …to hear the concert and I honestly couldn’t get Kent Jacobs off my mind. So, it goes with you wherever you at, you know… a day off doesn’t necessarily mean a day off, it just means… for me, I’m just constantly thinking, what can I do, how could I do this better for these families… you know, what could I offer to continue to help make a difference.
TODD: Like I say, you’re looking at things, like market input tools, and you think, “Now how can I adapt this to serve this purpose? How can I make this help in this case?” You see other organizations, completely different organizations at times, you know, working on cancer treatment and a lot of different types of causes and you see how they do things and how they organize themselves and you can learn from it. There’s a lot to learn from it.
LADONNA: Absolutely and, you know, we have some great connections with organizations, such as yours, who have just been great to lend a listening ear to us and to help guide us and to provide us with information or with tools that we might not have had on our own, and it’s been a great benefit and, you know, we never think that we have the answer. We know that there’s always more to learn and that’s what we spend a good portion of our time doing, is continuing to educate ourselves and to learn in the process and to learn how we can better serve these families.
TODD: And how to work with other organizations is a very key thing because often they’re doing that just fits right into what you’re doing. We do have a links page on missingpieces.info and you are more than welcome to use anything there that you want. We’ve done a lot of research and it took a long time to get that page built and anything that you need, use it, you know I hope you feel free to do that.
LADONNA: Well, thank you, I will. That, in and of itself, is helpful. Right now, we’ve been blessed, you know, we’re newer, so lots of people has been visiting our website and using that resources page, so I appreciate that because that’s really going to better serve the families and I think that’s what we’re all about.
TODD: I always take time to take advantage of something that somebody has already done and got completed and is willing to share it. You know, because that’s what I’ve tried to do, I’ve spent... I’ve dedicated my own time, very crudely I might add, at the point in time that I was trying to look for the tent girl and the things that I learned during that 10 years, I think I can help somebody shave that much time off their search. It might not take them completely through the end of their journey, but there are things that I can tell them, “well, this worked for me but it might not work for you.” You know, just bring up a lot of things that they won’t have to struggle with and hopefully you can present opportunities to them. Now, what have you got in mind for this summer? I think you’ve got some events planned for the summer time.
LADONNA: I do. We have several different things; we will be back in North Carolina…
TODD: uh huh
LADONNA: … working on Kent’s case, obviously, the reward will be up in June and we’re going to have a presence in June. We are working on Safety Matters all summer long so it can be implemented in the fall in classrooms in North Carolina, special-needs classrooms, so that’s a huge endeavor. We’ve been invited to meet our governor’s office here and to form a task force for the Safety Matters project and for a bill that we would like to see be passed in 2 years. It’s something will be an alert system for cognitively impaired individuals, and that could mean special-needs, that could mean Alzheimer’s, so we’re really working hard to get that team of people together this summer to make that happen. You know, it’s a 2-year project; it’s going to be a lot of hard work but we think it’s really important and I believe it can save lives.
TODD: Well, I don’t think you really specialize but it seems that you’ve done a lot of work for the special-needs people, I know that you don’t limit it to the special-need people, but I know that you really have a special interest in it and I’ve not seen that happen before. So, this is really good to see that happen. I think you’re hitting a spot that needs a little work.
LADONNA: And I agree. You know, all of our cases are so personal for us and, as you know, you know that exactly. I can’t explain it, as far as the connection that I have with the Jacobs family… I feel like, it’s almost like I knew Kent.
TODD: I know exactly what you mean.
LADONNA: I’m passionate about helping build a program, even just a small… even though I know that I’m just the little bitty tiny piece of the puzzle, for a program that could make a difference in the lives of special-needs adults and children. That isn’t all that we specialize in but it’s really important to us that we see that through. The other big project that we’re working on is ‘The Perception Project’, like we mentioned early with ‘Outpost for Hope’, the multimedia contacts with a mission and we’re really hoping to raise awareness about an invisible population of lost children… that program is called ‘Kids Off The Grid’ and so, we’re going to be working on that all summer long… so we’re really excited about that.
TODD: You know I think Libba (Phillips) is a really good family liaison type of person because, you know, with her sister Ashley and the situation she’s had there… when you refer Libba to somebody and she can say, “I understand what you’re going through” and mean it… really, really clearly. She understands exactly what you’re going through. It’s easy to say, “I understand” when you try to comfort somebody but to actually really know and she went through some amazing processes trying to work on her sister’s case. I’ve listened to a lot of it with her and she’s truly a dedicated human being.
LADONNA: Yeah, she’s incredible, and I was so excited to meet with her. She feels that same way about you too, Todd. I mean, you’ve both just been really great, just a plethora of knowledge and support and…
TODD: We get to make these incredible friendships because I’ve met people, maybe not face to face, but you really get these really deep friendships and you really learn to love and care for these people and, in fact, the cases too. I always say that I don’t want to get that close again to where it hurts like that but that’s easier said than done when you’re getting close to the families of the missing and you begin to work with them more and more and more and you become so involved, like you said, it’s just like you knew that person.
TODD: And, you know, you hurt with the family.
LADONNA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, absolutely… that’s just absolutely the truth and you know, this is not an easy line of work, by any means, but it is something that I am sure that I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life pursuing and I intend to do that and, it’s like I tell everybody else, if we can make a difference, a small difference in the life of one family, then I feel like I’ve done my job, and, you know, God willing, we’ll make a difference for a lot of families and a lot of the organizations that we collaborate with. We just really want to be on the forefront of building these collaborations and being involved and staying involved.
TODD: Tell me now, if I had a case… okay, if I have a missing person in my family and I’ve called your 800-number, what would be step #1?
LADONNA: Well, the 800-number…
TODD: There’s some type of intake, I’m sure.
LADONNA: Right. The 800-number that we have right now is free, no-cost tip line and it’s not answered by a live person.
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: Obviously, we do have people that leave messages on that line, and we call back and then we offer the other number on our website that people can call, that leads to my office directly. And so, the first thing that we do is that, we have what is called an intake form, I’m sure that you’re really familiar with it…
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: …and we just take the basic information and we talk to the family for an extended amount of time… and then we immediately, you know, there’s some things that we do and in the age of the Internet, we’re able to do a lot of the research that we need, right there on the Internet. We almost always immediately connect with law enforcement that’s involved with the case and any other organization that is serving the family.
TODD: And that’s not always easy to do, is connect with law enforcement. You know, they’re… sometimes they’re so overwhelmed… sometimes it’s difficult.
LADONNA: It’s true. It’s difficult and, you know, today we’ve been very unusually blessed with the cases that we have, that we’ve been able to connect fairly quickly and regularly with law enforcement… simply because some of the things that we do have to be cleared with law enforcement.
LADONNA: The rewards, for example. You know, we never want to do anything that could jeopardize a case, obviously, and so we spend some time just educating ourselves about the case and about the family. The next step is that we find out exactly what the family feels like they need from us and a lot of times, honestly, they don’t know… they just want help, and then we are able to sit down as a group with the staff and strategically plan what we can offer to the case. Sometimes, we’re going to find that it is just PR support, helping them send out that press release…
TODD: And that’s probably very hard for that person to do, especially when that’s their first introduction to this world, is their own particular case… because sometimes people just don’t pay attention to this cause, not unless or until they are involved in it.
LADONNA: You’re exactly right. So, sometimes it may just be as simple as helping them write a very clean, powerful press release; getting their information on the Internet; doing some research for them; generating what we can for them media-wise. One of the things that we offer, we really encourage families to take advantage of, is availing our PR professionals to step in and be a liaison for the family with the media. And sometimes, we have found, especially like in the case of Kent Jacobs, that that is, in and of itself, media-worthy. It opens up a whole new door of getting that picture and that story back into the newspaper, and so that’s really what we focus on, and then, if it’s appropriate, we work with the family on a reward…
TODD: mm huh
LADONNA: …and, if it’s appropriate, we connect them with the right resources beyond what we can do. We’re never afraid to say, “hey, we can’t do that but we’ll help you find somebody who can.” We’re never afraid to say that because, obviously, there are some things that we are limited, resource-wise or knowledge-wise, and so we’re the first to say, “hey, we building this resource list and we’re building these relationships, let me connect you with Todd Matthews” or “let me connect you with Libba Phillips.” So, that’s key, if the family knows that we’re building relationships that are going to benefit them.
TODD: Well, there’s definitely a network forming, even more so now than ever before. Some families are able to go out there and represent their own cases; they become their own spokesman, Libba, for example, she’s a prime example of that, you know. She has become the person that she needed… that she herself needed… she’s become that person. She learned how to do that and she had to… she had to do that, but sometimes the families are just not ready yet and I think that would be me, in particular, as much as I’ve worked in this field, when it comes home… all the way home to your own house…
TODD: You know, I don’t know if I would be able to be the person to be able to do what I do now and stand up and actually deal with the media. I don’t know if I could, and it’s nice to know that you would have people that can do that for you.
LADONNA: Right. Then we’ll fly to where they’re at. You know, we will drop everything and there is no charge for what we do for the families. I mean, I want to make that clear. Everything we do… there is no cost involved for the family so, if that means that we need to fly to South Dakota to host a press conference for a family, then that’s absolutely what we’ll do. And then, you know, we work really closely with media outlets all across the United States… we’re working with PR and marketing firms and law enforcement and different non-profits, to be able to offer the best media liaison service that we can offer.
TODD: And thank God for email.
LADONNA: Oh… I don’t know what I would do without it. I mean, it’s really changed the face of how you can handle public relations… I mean, in an instant, in a matter of 15 seconds, I can contact media outlets all across the nation with key information. It’s just a fabulous tool.
TODD: You know, literally everyday, I speak to somebody on every continent but Antarctica. That literally happens on a daily basis and you know, it’s just like a dream and when you’re trying to use it as a tool for the particular cause, you know, it’s even more amazing. Because you’re actually doing more than just chatting with somebody, you’re actually sharing ideas and thoughts with the entire globe. It’s an amazing time we live in.
LADONNA: It’s amazing and I feel very blessed to be a part of something. Because what we want to do is take that truth of being able to harness the power of the Internet, harness the power of the technology in 2007 and use that to benefit these families who have missing loved ones. We want to be that resource. We want to be the persons that can help them do that and do it quickly and do it well and be able to send them to the other appropriate organizations that can also help collaborate, you know, to do what they do well. You know, Monica Caison and the CUE Center [Community United Effort (CUE) Center for Missing Persons] comes to mind, you know, they do…
LADONNA: …they do so many things so well with Search and Rescue and it goes on and on and on. That’s something that we’re not capable of doing, you know, so there are those relationships that we’re building and we’re going to continue to build to benefit these families, because that, at the end of the day, Todd, is what is going to make a difference.
TODD: Absolutely, and I have a feeling our paths will probably cross this year. I’m pretty confident of that… I’ve got a busy year planned too, so I have a feeling that we might cross paths at some point and time this year.
LADONNA: Well, that’s exciting, and I would be honored.
TODD: Well, I’ve been quieter than normal on this show because usually we’re dealing with family members and you find yourself having to do a lot of talking to help lead them along but I’ve been trying to be quiet this time and to let you do a lot of the talking and to just let you get your information out there so I got a chance to rest this week, so that’s good. And it’s been really a pleasure talking to you. You’ll have a permanent archive on missingpieces.info. It’ll be there. It’ll be transcribed eventually and hopefully it will guide more people to your website so that people can contact you. There’s a lot of traffic that comes this way and I think you’ll find a few surprising relationships you might form here.
LADONNA: Well, I thank you so much. This is a tremendous opportunity and I’m very honored to have been a part of it.
TODD: Well, it’s been great having you.
LADONNA: Thank you.
TODD: Okay, well, I’m going to tell everybody goodnight and we’ll talk to you again next week. Goodnight LaDonna.
LADONNA: Goodnight. Thank you.
TODD: Thank you. Bye bye.
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