My 7-year old granddaughter lives with me and has for the last six years. She is pure joy. I cannot find the words to describe the sheer pleasure of having her in my life on a daily basis. Her smile, her laughter, brightens up the dark days.
Every morning before she heads off to school, I help her brush her teeth, and then I get to comb her hair. Sometimes, while combing, I grow frustrated with all the tangles that have formed overnight. Combing her hair can turn into a five-minute ordeal. But when that happens, I'm always reminded of an event that happened a couple of decades ago - an encounter that I will never be able to forget...
In 2001 I was a school cop, more commonly known as a School Resource Officer (SRO). I loved that job. And though I had already been an officer for 20 years when I landed this assignment, it was like starting my career all over. The excitement had returned.
One day after work, I drove to the station to drop off my patrol car and then headed home. My personal vehicle was an old van that had been given to me as a gift about 12 years earlier. I had worn that thing out, and, no doubt, it was on its final leg. One of its issues was that the gas needle was broke, thus, I never had any idea how much gas was in the tank. You might say I “drove by faith.”
But on this particular day, my faith wasn’t sufficient. The tank was nearing empty (unknown to me). The old van sputtered and died, forcing me to cruise into a church parking lot next to a grade school.
I was in my uniform, which caused me some embarrassment. I got out of the van, kicked it, and said a few things I probably shouldn’t have. Since I was only five blocks from the house, I decided to walk home...
No sooner had I gotten a few yards when someone grabbed my attention.
“Officer, what’s the problem?” Larry was in the same parking lot, waiting for his wife and kid to come out of school when he saw my agitation concerning my vehicle.
“Aw, I’m outta gas. But, I only live a few blocks down the street. I’ll be ok. Thanks.”
“Officer, I’ve got some time," Larry said. "I can go get you some gas. I gotta gas can and doing so won’t be a problem. Besides, I have a lot of respect for the police. It would mean a lot to me if I could help ya.”
Wearing that heavy uniform I had no desire to walk home. The belt itself, along with its 'stuff,' weighed 22 pounds. Why not let him help? I concluded.
“Sure, sir. I’d really appreciate it.”
He smiled and started to make his way toward his car. But then he turned and said something else. “Officer, I'm gonna need a favor from ya.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
Pointing toward the school, Larry said, “My wife will be coming out of that gym door any moment. Her son will be with her. When she sees you standing here she will get nervous, wondering if everything's ok. Would you please tell her I went to get ya some gas.”
He hesitated for a moment and then added: “You might even recognize her. Her name is Donna - and she’s the mother of Amber Hagerman.”
Amber Hagerman was the 9-year girl who in 1996 had been abducted in Arlington, Texas (about 10 miles from our location). Her kidnapper had brutally murdered her after torturing her. It was Amber's death that created the Amber Alert.
I was caught off guard by his remark. I had no idea that the mother of Amber Hagerman lived in my neighborhood.
“Sir,” I asked, “do you mean Amber ... from ‘the Amber Alert?’”
“Yeah, from the Amber Alert.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’d like to meet her.”
He hopped in his car and went off to fetch me some gas. I turned toward the grade school and watched for Donna. A couple of minutes later, I saw her exit the gym door. She was holding her son’s hand. When she got near me, I quickly struck up a conversation, speaking rapidly -
“Hello Donna. I’m Officer Meeks. Everything is ok. I ran out of gas and your hubby went to get me some. I'm pretty embarrassed.”
“Oh, ok,” she said, her voice ever so gentle.
She walked over to her car: her son got in the passenger seat, she slipped into the driver’s side.
I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there. Amber had only been dead about five years and the memory of the tragedy was still very fresh in the community – as well as the nation.
Donna broke the silence.
“Officer Meeks, do you know who I am?”
“Yes ma'am I do. You’re Amber Hagerman’s mom. I saw you on TV with the president not too long ago. Your courage has been an inspiration to the country, ma’am.”
“Oh,” she replied, her voice filled with sorrow.
I leaned back against my van. Still unsure of what, if anything, I should say. The silence returned.
She sat in her car, staring at the steering wheel. For a second time, she broke the silence.
“You know what I miss the most ... about Amber?”
I was not ready for that question. I had no idea what she was about to say, nor did I know how to answer her question. She was looking right at me. I thought for a moment what this dear, precious lady must be enduring every day of her life. And to make matters worse, Amber’s killer had not been caught (still hasn’t).
The only thing that came to mind was this...
“Donna, I have five daughters. And I cannot begin to imagine what you must go through every day...”
So she told me. She told me what she missed "the most" about Amber.
“I sure do miss ...combing her hair.”
I was speechless. I am not often without words, but I was in this moment.
I have no memory of Larry returning with my gas. I know he did, for I was soon walking in the back door of my house. I went straight to my room and shed the uniform, changing into something more comfortable.
I then marched into the living room and sat on the couch. I knew my youngest daughter, 4-year old Lydia, was in her room, which was only a few feet from where I sat. I shouted – no - I hollered at her...
“LYDIA! GET IN HERE... and bring a ... brush...”
Seconds later she came running out, brush in hand. She looked at me, puzzled and curious.
“Sweetheart. I need you to sit here ... and let me ... comb your hair.."
She quietly sat down, and I brushed that long, beautiful hair...
And now, every morning – 18 years later – I comb the hair of another little girl: a 7-year old who calls me “Poppy.” And when I get frustrated with the tangles, I remember Donna.
And I remember Amber.
At every Sheepdog Seminar we beg and plead for churches to send their youth directors and children’s workers. Sadly, only a few - usually none - will be in attendance. I simply cannot get them to see the importance of this.
At the seminar, we will show them exactly what must be done to prevent the sex crimes that are happening on faith-based property.
At a seminar in North Dakota a youth director did show up. “What made you decide to come?” I asked. The man sitting across from him – his pastor – interrupted: “I TOLD HIM TO COME.” I was impressed by this pastor, and the youth director. But I remain puzzled: why won’t pastors just tell their youth directors: “YOU ... ARE ... GOING.” Period. And if not to one of our seminars, attend one somewhere.
Perhaps you’re wondering if an abduction could happen at a church. Yes, they can.
And they have...
In November of 2016 10-year old Kayla Gomez-Orozco (right) was inside her east Texas church during a Wednesday night prayer meeting when she was abducted. An Amber Alert was issued. Over the next few days, 800 volunteers searched 1500 acres. But sadly, her lifeless body was found in a well. A relative was arrested and charged with Capital Murder.
HE ... HAD ... ABDUCTED ... HER ... RIGHT ... OUT ... OF ... THE...CHURCH.
It may seem like the impossible dream, but we must work toward putting the Amber Alert out of business.
UPCOMING SHEEPDOG SEMINARS
Birmingham, Alabama - September 28-29. Click here. Stephen Willeford will be with us in Birmingham. Stephen is the man who shot, and stopped, the killer at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs last November (where 26 worshipers were murdered).
San Diego, California - October 6. Stephen Willeford will be with us in San Diego. Stephen is the man who shot, and stopped, the killer at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs last November (where 26 worshipers were murdered)