Smiling snapshots flanked the words “On the Road to Remember” and covered a window of the big, bright red van parked at the Harley-Davidson dealership in North Myrtle Beach on Saturday – the last stop on a tour that’s covered 4,011 miles and 11 states in eight days – before returning to Wilmington, N.C., with members of Community United Effort (CUE) Center for Missing Persons.
Jeneane Shanahan stood next to the van and pointed and recited names – her son’s included – as she moved her finger to rest next to the face of a young man with blonde hair and blue eyes.
“This is Mathew Sterling,” she said. “He was recovered.”
Then, as though she anticipated the next question, Shanahan shook her head and explained.
“We say ‘found safe’ if they’re recovered alive.”
Shanahan’s son, Damien Sharp, was 22 when he went missing in 2002 – and in the same solemn tone, Shanahan said she knew he wasn’t coming home.
Both wearing pink T-shirts with CUE logos, Shanahan, of Warren, Pa., stood next Elisa Sterling of West Palm Beach, Fla., as they manned an information table during the last stop of the 11th Annual National Road Tour Rally for Missing Persons as state coordinators and volunteers for the organization founded in 1994 and based in Wilmington.
The family of Heather Elvis, a Myrtle Beach woman who has been missing for most of 2014, and Dawn Drexel, the mother of Brittanee Drexel, a teenager who went missing on spring break more than five years ago, were in attendance.
CUE provides resources and assistance to families of missing persons and provides free services that include trained professionals, search-and-recovery units nationwide, long-term care and victim support for families and loved ones left behind.
The complete list of services can be found at ncmissingpersons.org.
Funding for services is provided through the support of sponsors and event fundraisers held throughout the year.
With a mission to “join efforts with all concerned, seeking closure of tragedies as [they] remain in search of the missing,” CUE founder Monica Caison said, “we are the voices for the victims.”
According to Lonnie Brian Jordan, a volunteer and advocate for the CUE center, there are approximately 150 missing in South Carolina.
On his Facebook page, Jordan wrote, “There are currently about 150 active missing persons cases in South Carolina that are unsolved. This means there are no arrests, no convictions, no recovery of the missing person and no resolution for the family.”
Jordan is currently advocating for the implementation of a South Carolina Adult Missing Person’s Civil Rights Law to protect the missing and ensure the missing person has someone to speak and act on their behalf until they are found or there is closure.
Jordan’s step-son, Zachary Malinowski, has been missing since August of 2013.
Jordan, who said he has continued to pay for Zachary’s cellphone, stressed the meaningful importance of hearing that cellphone ping with the hope that someone may one day pick it up and say “hello?”
“Each family [of a missing person] has their own set of unique circumstances,” Jordan said. “[Most] just want to know the truth.”
And for almost 10 years, Gail Soles has sought the same for her daughter, Crystal Gail Soles, missing since 2005.
Soles was last seen in the morning hours at the Shaw’s corner store in Andrews, according to a flyer provided by Gail Soles.
Her mother has refused to give up and remains hopeful.
“We get tips all of the time,” she said.
In addition to the support and resources CUE provides, it also offers an outlet for families to reach out and become advocates themselves.
“To help us heal,” said Caison.
Shanahan, who said she was “a mess” for the first few years, also found out she had kidney cancer five years ago.
“You don’t know anybody or who to turn to. All control is taken away,” said Sterling.
But by aiding families of the victims through a healing process that includes matching volunteers to others who share similar circumstances, CUE’s purpose for the rallies becomes two-fold by creating public awareness, which can lead to kick-starting cold cases again, and the public is reminded of the loved ones who are still missing with the hope it will inspire new tips and information.
Caison noted on the 2014 tour alone a 28-year-old case was solved and a few children were found and returned safely to their families.
But before the red van headed back to Wilmington, families of the missing joined hands, bowed their heads and released a bouquet of yellow balloons into a bright blue sky.
“I’m not giving up,” said Gail Soles.
Contact the CUE 24-hour Confidential Tip Line at 910-232-1687.