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A sister was lost; a movement was found

By SHARON TUBBS, City Times Editor
Published November 30, 2007


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Three time zones away in California, Libba Phillips is pursuing a calling that she first heard in Tampa, along a rundown stretch of Nebraska Avenue and other crevices of lost hope.

Almost a decade ago now, she drove the streets looking for her sister. Ashley had been abused as a child and was addicted to alcohol and crack by age 15. She was also mentally ill and, by 23, she was missing in Tampa. Police were of little help - she was a grown woman, likely high someplace and missing of her own will.

So Libba searched for her.

Their story is laid out succinctly in the December issue of Reader's Digest.

The stories of Ashley and othermentally ill people or substance abusers often elicit only a shrug. Authorities may or may not take the time to file a missing-person report. If not, the names likely won't make it into official databases for missing people. Their pictures won't smile back at you from postcards in the mail that ask, "Have you seen me?"

It's understandable. So many missing children - who lived innocent lives, who didn't have time to make wrong choices - are missing, too. (Remember Rilya Wilson, the 5-year-old Miami foster child whom authorities discovered missing in 2002?)

Police can do only so much. We'd rather they use the energy trying to find vulnerable kids than drug addicts, right?

That kind of logic won't lift the burden for families whose loved ones are on the streets or missing with no Amber Alert or anybody else who seems to care.

For them, the holidays bring a bit of sadness. This is the time when families are supposed to be together.

Libba didn't give up on Ashley. She left her job in pharmaceutical sales to launch Outpost for Hope, now based in Sacramento, Calif. The national nonprofit organization helps families with missing relatives.

About 1-million unreported missing people, or what Outpost calls "kids off the grid," are in the country today, according to the organization's research.

Outpost spokesman Todd Matthews says they wind up in the unreported-missing category for a variety of reasons: They are estranged from families and friends; they are in the country illegally; they are unknown dependent children of unreported missing adults or teens; or police didn't file a missing-person report.

The organization's volunteers generate publicity by contacting media outlets and posting fliers. They also support families emotionally.

"The most vulnerable and most hidden population of 'kids off the grid' are unaccounted-for infants and children of unreported missing or lost persons," Libba says.

The organization has helped 50 families find missing relatives, a Reader's Digest spokeswoman said. The magazine chose Libba to be part of its "Everyday Hero" series.

The search for her sister ended in 2003, nearly five years after Ashley went missing and several years after she started Outpost. A friend of Ashley's saw a "missing" poster and urged her to call family.

She did. She was safe, living in North Carolina.

Go to www.outpostforhope.org for more information about Outpost for Hope.

[Last modified November 29, 2007, 07:37:25]


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