When kidnapping victims Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight escaped a nearly decade-long imprisonment in Ariel Castro’s Cleveland home in early May, their rescuers and captors were thrust into the national spotlight.
Charles Ramsey, a Clevelander, was given much of the credit for their liberation after helping to smash down the door of the house.
But Dennis Bair, a Jewish Pittsburgher, worked for years to find DeJesus — and garnered a close relationship with her family.
“I got to become good friends with Gina’s mother and father and they’re just the greatest people in the world,” said Bair in Beth Hamedrash Hagadol-Beth Jacob Congregation, Downtown, on Monday morning. “I mean they’re just very positive, they’re very religious people, they had rock solid faith in God that their daughter was going to come home, and they were right.”
Bair is the founder and president of the BairFind Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the goal of getting the public involved in the search for missing children. The foundation gets professional and minor league sports teams to put up information about missing children on posters and billboards in their stadiums, where tens of thousands of people will see the information every night.
So far, BairFind has signage at the entryways at Heinz Field and PNC Park in Pittsburgh and Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, as well as about 20 minor league baseball stadiums.
“What we do is just so simple,” Bair said. “We take the sign that has missing kids and we put it in the stadium where the people are, and it’s no more difficult than that.
Bair began working for the DeJesus family in 2005. He went with them to numerous sporting events in which information about Gina was handed out on fliers and posters and shown on the Jumbotron.
As recently as April, Bair went to a Cleveland Cavaliers game with DeJesus’ family, where Gina’s profile was put on the big screen for everyone in the arena to see. Bair said DeJesus’ mother,
Nancy, is the most active person that he ever worked with in pursuing a missing child, and the rest of the family follows suit.
“Every time we would do an event their whole family would come,” Bair said. “I’d have to leave them 10 tickets or 12 tickets, and all of Gina’s nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, everybody would come.”
Bair first found out about DeJesus’ escape in a text message from a friend in Florida. Still not completely certain, he did a Google search to confirm the report.
“It was the evening, and it was a long day and I thought, ‘alright, the rest of my day is going to be me going home and going to bed,’ ” Bair said. “And all of a sudden it was like the sun came out, and it was a brand new day, and the air was fresh and it felt like a brand new beginning.”
Bair called Nancy DeJesus right away; she was at the hospital with Gina at the time.
“Immediately, I called Nancy, and she answered the phone very sweetly and said ‘hello Dennis,’ and I said ‘hello Nancy,’ and she asked me if I was OK and I said, ‘yes Nancy, are you OK?” Bair said. “We just started laughing and crying and she was saying ‘God Bless you, God bless you, you never gave up,’ and I said to her ‘God bless you, God bless you, you never gave up.’ ”
For Bair, DeJesus returning to her family was the answer to a prayer. Just weeks before the three women escaped from their holdings, Bair traveled to Israel. He wrote many things on a piece of paper including finding Gina, and placed it as high up as he could in a crevice in the Western Wall.
Not long afterward, his hopes came to fruition.
“I had told Gina’s mom that I had written this down and put it in the Wall,” Bair said. “And her response was, ‘well that prayer was answered.’ ”
Bair has not visited the family since Gina came home, but he has had numerous phone conversations with DeJesus’ parents in the past few weeks.
“They are just doing wonderful,” Bair said. “Their voices sound different. You can just hear the power in their voice when they speak on the phone. They were good strong people before, but I listen to their voices on the phone and it’s like there’s some type of booming power coming through their voice.”
Although Bair worked closely with the DeJesus family, the BairFind Foundation also aided in the search for Amanda Berry with posters and signage. Michelle Knight, the other kidnapping victim found with the DeJesus and Berry, did not receive commercialization from BairFind because she was an adult at the time of her disappearance.
Both DeJesus and Berry became part of BairFind’s “Bring Home 100” campaign, which issued a challenge to bring 100 missing children home to their families. DeJesus and Berry were numbers 17 and 18 out of the 100 children that BairFind wants to find.
A former minor league pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs organizations, Bair chose the number 100 because of its significance in the sports world such as a baseball team getting 100 wins, or a running back rushing for 100 yards.
“One hundred is a significant number in sports,” Bair said. “Really it was about 100 RBIs because in baseball an RBI means a run batted in — you got him home.”
In DeJesus’ case, it was about getting her home. And the same goes for Berry.
Two more RBIs for BairFind.
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.)