Their faces etched with pain and exhaustion, the four women in the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center said they refuse to give up hope.
Just a day earlier, they and the rest of Minnesota learned the gut-wrenching details of how Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy from St. Joseph, was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed in 1989. For more than two decades, the smiling face of the sandy-haired boy was the face of the Resource Center, as his parents and others held onto hope that he would be found.
A “missing” poster for Jacob remained in the office’s entryway on Wednesday. “We looked at Jacob’s face for 27 years,” said Kari Christenson, who came to work at the Resource Center in Minneapolis to help field a flood of phone calls, e-mails and social media posts from people wanting to express condolences and reach out to help the Wetterling family.
But mostly, she and her colleagues were back on the job Wednesday to keep fighting for children who are abused, neglected, exploited and gone missing.
For Patty and Jerry Wetterling, the Resource Center and its predecessor were never just about their son, Christenson said. “It’s about all the families out there looking for missing children. … Now that Jacob has been found, they won’t stop being advocates for children, and neither will we.”
The recovery of Jacob’s remains was not the ending his family, friends and strangers across the state had hoped for, Christenson said. “But it’s an answer. It’s more than they had a week ago. And that’s important,” she said. “And we can’t give up hope, because there are other families that need our strength.”
She and the others in the Resource Center sat behind their desks, tired and emotionally drained from the past four days since news broke that Jacob’s remains had been recovered.
“I don’t know how I’m doing,” said victim advocate Jane Straub, when asked. “I can’t say I’m doing well. I think it’s delayed grief.”
When Jaycee Dugard was found alive in 2009 after she was abducted in California as an 11-year-old, Straub and others held out for a similar ending for Jacob.
But this week, nearly 27 years after his abduction, Straub listened in the courtroom on Tuesday as Danny Heinrich explained how he killed Jacob.
“I couldn’t believe we had to wait so long,” Straub said. “I couldn’t believe he couldn’t have told us or someone in all these years.
“I’ve cried, but there’s more inside that has to come out,” she said.
And there’s anger about living in a world where people hurt children — anger that spurs her to act, she said.
“I want to fight more,” she said. “I want to fight harder. … There are kids out there that still need to be found.”
On Saturday, as news spread that Jacob’s remains had been found, Straub got a call from a mother who said her missing daughter had just been found safe. “Then she wanted to know how the Wetterlings were doing,” Straub said. “It’s amazing how people who are hurting still have compassion for others.”
The women in the Resource Center have learned that lesson well from watching Patty and Jerry Wetterling for more than two decades.
“The Wetterlings were always about building a world that Jacob believed in,” said Alison Feigh, the center’s program director and a childhood friend of Jacob’s. “I refuse to let this man have any more than what he’s already taken. He took enough and he’s not going to take anything else.”
Patty Wetterling inspired us to make a difference, Feigh said, “making the world a worthy place for kids.”
“It’s about going to fourth-grade classrooms to talk about safety, to teenagers about dating violence and to parents about keeping their children safe,” Christenson said.
She quickly points out that “being a helicopter parent” isn’t the answer. “Fear doesn’t teach children anything except to be afraid. … We’re trying to create a world where it’s safe to play beyond the end of a driveway,” she said.
She continues to believe in such simple things as kindness, compassion and speaking up when someone is being treated badly. For example, sitting with the kid in the lunchroom who is sitting alone, helping a neighbor and saying good morning to a stranger.
“You never know if that person just needs someone to be kind to them on that day,” she said. “But be aware if someone tries to hurt you, it’s OK to shout for help.”
“The world can be a safe, beautiful and wonderful place,” she said.
It’s what she and the Wetterlings want people to remember. And even amid their grief over Jacob, they want people to know there’s hope for those who have gone missing.
“Hope is what we stand for,” she said.