By Jim Molis
Every picture does tell a story.
For Dennis Bair, that picture used to be an autographed photo of professional football legend Rocky Bleier.
The photo depicts Bleier rambling downfield as a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their dynasty years in the 1970s. His glory lasts in perpetuity, making him forever worthy of the adulation of the legions of boys growing up in Pittsburgh at the time, like Bair.
“This a photo I would never throw away because I love the Steelers and I love Rocky Bleier,” said Bair, four decades after his boyhood hero personally signed the photo.
The picture is more than a black-and-white image on fading photo paper. It epitomizes the love that Bair held—and still holds—for his boyhood hero.
But a different picture irreversibly altered Bair’s life. And, now, he uses pictures to tell others’ stories.
Baseball lays the groundwork
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Bair attended college at Northeast Louisiana University, which is now called the University of Louisiana-Monroe. He pitched well enough for his school’s team to be drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1995 to play professional baseball.vAs a starting pitcher, he only played every five days but was one of the team’s popular players. So, he spent much of his time in the community, visiting sick kids and supporting charities.
One day, he was flipping channels when a documentary about a missing child caught his attention. A 13-year-old girl had gone to a Pearl Jam concert with her friends but had never returned. Her affluent parents devoted their lives to finding her to no avail. Their fruitless quest also cost them their jobs and their beautiful home, which they feared to leave in case they weren’t there if their daughter came back. Forced to live in a spare room at the home of some friends, the couple persevered, canvassing their community, handing out fliers.
A scene in which passersby threw one of the couple’s fliers into the trash lingers with Bair to this day. The closest garbage can overflowed with fliers, each of which, with its image of the missing girl staring up from the trash, spoke to how she had been discarded. Except for her parents, no one seemed to care. The concern that her disappearance had initially prompted had faded like the sharpness of Bair’s photo of Bleier.
Struck by the contrast between how much he loved his Bleier keepsake and how little people valued the missing girl’s picture, Bair seized on an idea that would come to define his life—and eventually thousands of others. “The only difference was that my photo was signed by a professional athlete, who kids look up to as heroes,” he said.
Though they lacked the star power of a Bleier, Bair and his fellow minor leaguers were also professional athletes that kids admired. So, in 2001, Bair started to ask teams to include a photo of a missing child from their community on their annual team posters, which they gave away to fans.
Loved ones of the missing children appreciated the effort to engage people in searching for their kids. The DeJesus family of Cleveland was particularly thankful for the opportunity to keep circulating the name and photo of their missing loved one, Gina DeJesus. She was missing for almost 10 years, before she escaped from her abductor, Ariel Castro, in 2013. “It gave them hope that Gina could be found,” Bair said.
An estranged father of one of her friend’s, Castro had lured DeJesus into his van when she was 14 years old. He had then locked her up in his home, along with two other women, all of whom he repeatedly sexually assaulted before he was arrested.
Bonding with the DeJesus family during their hopeful vigil fueled Bair’s passion for helping missing children like Gina, so much so that it became his life’s mission.
Minor League Baseball partnership
In 2010, Bair started a nonprofit to “to revolutionize the search for missing children,” many of whom, like the girl from the documentary, only loved ones seemed to seek. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has more than 460,000 active reports of missing children, according to statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which, as the national clearinghouse for information assists law enforcement, families and the professionals who serve them with cases of missing and exploited children.
“It’s not an illness where you can get a vaccine and wipe it out across the board,” Bair said.
Now based in Jacksonville, BairFind began with the purpose of getting minor league ballparks to display signs of local missing children. As popular destinations, the stadiums would build awareness of the missing children by providing great exposure.
BairFind works closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to find a local child to profile on a sign at a ballpark. With so many children missing, it is not hard to find a profile to put on a display in any town across America.
As of July, 139 Minor League Baseball teams across the country were participating in the search for missing children, up from 40 teams last year. BairFind debuted in 2014 with signs in 26 stadiums and expanded to 40 stadiums in 2015. During that time, 278 missing children were featured and of those 68 have been safely located. With the nationwide expansion, the number of featured children safely located has already surpassed 100.
BairFind’s designation as a Homegrown Charity Partner of Minor League Baseball Charities has fueled the proliferation of signs.
“Through Minor League Baseball’s relationship with The BairFind Foundation, our ballparks can in one more way serve as a resource to their communities—to help find missing kids,” Minor League Baseball President & CEO Pat O’Conner stated, in a press release announcing the partnership in February. “We welcome BairFind to the MiLB family as a Homegrown Charity Partner and with the assistance of our clubs and fans, hope to play a small part in bringing more children home to their families.”
BairFind has also garnered support from Jacksonville businesses and donors. The Jay and Deanie Stein Unrestricted Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida awarded BairFind a $25,000 grant in March to fund the initial phase of the organization’s concourse sign project.
“We are delighted to support this potentially life-saving work that is being originated here in Jacksonville,” said Nina Waters, president of The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, in announcing the grant. “The BairFind Foundation’s partnership with Minor League Baseball Charities is an excellent strategy to leverage these dollars for the greatest opportunity to bring these children home.”
BairFind’s goal is to place a “BairFind Sign” in the concourse of every Minor League ballpark nationwide this season through a strategic roll-out campaign. It is also looking beyond baseball parks for other stadiums, arenas and facilities to display signs.
“We have a new fresh perspective to help these families because we haven’t had a missing child of our own,” said BairFind CEO Ellen Sullivan, an experienced entrepreneur and executive who has helped bring a business structure to the organization and runs its daily operations since joining in fall 2015.
“When their kids are missing, these families band together because they’re the only ones in the fight, in the search,” Sullivan said. “We have the perspective of somebody who can figure out ways to help that maybe the families haven’t been able to do or think of because they’re at the center of the search for their kids.”
Whether they were abducted, ran away or were otherwise lost, more children can and will be found, Bair said.
“There’s only one tried and true cure. That is the more eyes that are looking at a picture, the more likely someone is going to recognize that child and call the authorities.”
Like with his photo of Bleier, or that of the missing teenager featured in the documentary that changed his life, Bair has found that photos may fade but the memories that they represent and the stories that they tell do last—and provide reasons to keep hoping and in the case of the missing children searching.
“There’s no reason to stop,” Bair said. ”Until you find that kid, the search continues. No other way of living is acceptable.”