Cash-strapped Laura Recovery Center is at risk of closing
Gillie Puente remembers feeling confused and desperate when her sister went missing from her job at a Pearland clothing store in early 2009. The staff of the Laura Recovery Center in Friendswood quickly assembled scores of volunteers, and began a series of searches to find Susana "Suzy“ De Jesus, 38.
"They were a godsend. I was in a parking lot doing an interview with reporters, and I had no idea what I was going to do, what my family could do,“ Puente recalled. "You don't prepare yourself for this. You don't have the experience the center's staff did."
Today, Puente is trying to help those who helped her, and is raising donations to make sure the Laura Recovery Center can continue operations. A decline in contributions has left the center with funding for 90 days, directors say.
"We've been very blessed with the support of the community," said founder Bob Smither, 66. "I think everybody is retrenching a little in this economy."
Smither and his wife, Gay, established the center a year after their daughter, Laura Smither, 12, was abducted on April 3, 1977 while she was jogging near their Friendswood home. Her body was recovered nearly three weeks later, but the person who abducted and killed her has not been identified.
Smither said the center has helped 1,500 families search for missing loved ones, and was involved in efforts to find Elizabeth Smart in Utah as well as search for Chelsea King, 17, who was abducted near San Diego this year.
"When your child is missing, it's a nightmare,“ Smither said. "We provide a lot of help to families in that situation, simply because of the experience we've had. Families doesn't know how to deal with the media or with law enforcement.“
Bob Walcutt, the center's executive director, said the nonprofit's last major fundraiser was canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
"In the case of an abduction where family or law enforcement has contacted us, we work to have the community get out as quickly as possible,“ Walcutt said. "We've organized 99 such searches, literally from coast to coast. We do think the involvement of the community is critical when a child is missing."
The center also makes presentations about missing children to law enforcement academies, as has met with 200,000 schoolchildren and talked about how to recognize child predators .
Even though Puente's older sister was not found by center volunteers, she said the staff supported her.
De Jesus' body was found in a truck trailer in a office park in March 2009, after police interrogated a Pearland man arrested following an unsuccessful carjacking. Police say Nicholas-Michael Edwin Jean confessed to killing De Jesus in order to steal her black 2008 Cadillac, and led them to her body.
"Not only were they there for us, searching for my sister, they were there for the funeral, they were there when my sister's body was found, they were there during the murder trial,“ Puente recalled. "They were there during the whole process, and you can't really say that about a lot of organizations."
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