Why families of missing across America turn to The Center for HOPE in Ballston Spa, NY
The following is the first in a four-part series by Ann Hauprich about the founders of The Center for HOPE and how the not-for-profit based in upstate New York lights the way for families of missing persons across the USA.
Suzanne Gloria Lyall was a conscientious 19-year-old college sophomore with long blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes when she vanished without a trace after stepping off a bus near her SUNY/Albany dormitory at around 9:45 p.m. on March 2, 1998.
Still searching for clues as the calendar – and their grieving hearts – mark the 15th anniversary of their daughter’s mysterious disappearance, Mary and Doug Lyall say they draw comfort and strength from helping the loved ones of other missing persons.
During a recent interview, the Lyalls shared heartbreaking recollections of the day they learned Suzy was missing and how they have struggled each and every day since then to cope and rebuild their shattered lives.
It was out of the ashes of their anguish and grief that the couple laid the foundation for The Center for HOPE (Healing Our Painful Emotions) in Ballston Spa, NY, which has earned a national reputation as a beacon and a life raft for those struggling to cope with the unexplained disappearance of a loved one.
Advocacy, education and prevention are cornerstones of the not-for-profit as well as of an annual event initiated by the Lyalls that enables friends and relatives of the more than 4,000 missing persons throughout New York State to join together to reflect, remember and provide mutual support. The 2013 NYS Missing Persons Day will take place April 6 at the New York State Museum in Albany. (Click here for details.)
“Until our daughter vanished, Mary and I never gave much thought to tragedies like this,” reflects Mr. Lyall, a retired mental health professional, who was enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee while reading his morning newspaper the day the phone in his home rang with news that his daughter had failed to return to her dorm the night before. The emotional roller coaster ride that followed (to be detailed in Part Two) was so traumatic that in hindsight the Lyalls marvel that they survived the initial steep climbs and plunges, hairpin twists and turns and sudden dead end stops.
According to the Lyalls, those whose loved ones have vanished typically experience intense emotions ranging from shock and disbelief to sorrow and grief to frustration and anger before finally coming to the gut-wrenching realization that this is not some nightmare from which they will awaken if pinched. At this point, the most devastating emotion of all – despair – often enters the scenario.
“There was no place we could turn for the kind of guidance and support we needed when we got that life transforming call 15 years ago,” explains Mr. Lyall. That lack of critical resources at a critical time would ultimately become the spark that ignited the flame that led to the founding of The Center for HOPE and its outreach programs.
“Suzanne’s disappearance opened our eyes to the plight of others coping with similar tragedies and has brought us together so that we might help one another,” Mr. Lyall says, adding “a day never passes we don’t think about and miss our daughter.”
“For me and Doug and our older children (Steven and Sandra) there is no closure and never will be,” says Mrs. Lyall. “The best we can ever hope for is a resolve … a resolution. Even if Suzanne came back tomorrow and was able to celebrate her 35th birthday with us this April 6, it wouldn’t erase the 15 years she has been missing. You can never get back lost time with a loved one.”
The saving grace of the couple’s ordeal has been that they’ve come to view the journey that followed Suzanne’s disappearance from a different perspective.
Had this heavy cross not been placed on their shoulders, the Lyalls – who will celebrate 50 years of marriage in 2014 — would never have met many of the “wonderful people” whose paths have passed theirs in settings ranging from airports to conferences.
In addition to the advice and support they’ve received from such well-known newsmakers as John Walsh and Ed Smart, the Lyalls thank God for the people who would otherwise be strangers who now give them hugs or tell them their family is on a prayer list. “A small act or gesture really can make a large difference,” says Mrs. Lyall, an artist who has had little time to draw or paint since her daughter vanished.
The Lyalls are exceedingly grateful to the owners of the magnificently renovated Old Chocolate Factory for donating the commercial space that has been occupied by The Center for HOPE since around the turn-of-the-millennium. “We’d been operating out of our house a few miles away and were deeply moved the day Jerry DeFilippo (a father of two who is one of the historic landmark’s owners) came forward with the generous offer to give our not-for-profit a home,” says Mr. Lyall.
In addition to being the catalyst behind the proclamation that led to the establishment of the first NYS Missing Persons Day in 2001, the groundwork for many other initiatives have been laid behind the center’s doors.
It was here the Lyalls and the organization’s Board of Directors, with support from citizens, community leaders and elected representatives, worked together to help bring about the NYS Campus Safety Act, the Missing Persons Alert System through the NYS Thruway, Missing Persons profiles on NYS tax forms, Assault and Abduction Free School Zones and a piece of federal legislation called Suzanne’s Law.
More recent accomplishments include having decks of “Cold Case” playing cards produced that are now available to inmates at the county jails throughout NYS. “We are hopeful that the cards will jog someone’s memory and lead to the arrest and conviction of the perp responsible for unsolved abductions and murders,” says Mr. Lyall.
The Lyalls are also committed to expanding the radKIDS program – a subject to be probed in a subsequent part of this series.
To learn more, please visit www.hope4themissing.org
To read PART II of this series, CLICK HERE.