Sunday’s pleasant weather and strong west-to-east winds were possibly a sign from a higher power for Cindy Young.
For the past two years, she has been searching and searching for her daughter, Christina Whittaker. The 21-year-old mother went out with friends Nov. 13, 2009, and never returned home. She was last seen running out of the Sportsman’s bar crying.
Her cell phone was found a few blocks away and a waitress at an all-night diner outside of Peoria, Ill., was certain it was Christina who came in weeks later all distraught. Since then leads have been small, the family’s faith in the police has wilted thin and tears have been a daily occurrence. But amongst all the worry, all the fear, Young is keeping her faith strong with God; praying by the minute and not letting the notion that Christina may be dead let her down.
“I always know she’s alive, I always know she’s going to be home,” Young said. “All the prayers, that’s all that keeps us going.”
Sunday marked the two-year anniversary of Christina’s disappearance and to secure their vow to never give up the search for her, family members, friends, even strangers, came to Hannibal’s Central Park for a prayer vigil and balloon launch. With several leads pointing to Peoria, the heavy winds in that direction instilled hope that one of them would reach Christina.
Pink and green balloons may be the choice celebration colors for a spring party or Easter celebration, but they were Christina’s favorite. Inside their helium filled walls were notes written by the crowd of people that came out in support. One was personally written to God himself.
Amongst the attendees was Becki Sheaff, a longtime friend of Christina’s. They became acquainted through other friends five years ago, and soon a friendship between them was sparked.
“I just hope one of these balloons reaches someone that knows something, and they come forward so she can come home to her daughter and her family,” Sheaff said as she inflated each balloon on the small helium tank.
Like many of the people in Christina’s life, Sheaff was shocked to hear that her friend was missing. However, it didn’t sink in at first.
“I actually went into denial and didn’t believe it,” Sheaff said. “I just thought she was out and she would come home. And now I think that she’s out there somewhere and someone knows something and they just need to come forward because she needs to come home. Because I think if she had the ability to come home to her daughter, she would.”
Young has said in the past that she believes Christina’s kidnapping was gang related. A trip there a few weeks ago verified to her that her daughter is alive, but under someone’s control.
Page 2 of 3 - “A lady at a little store down there, one of the employees said that she had seen Christina in there about a month before. I was hoping to get her on camera, but the (surveillance) videos had been erased over,” Young said with Christina’s daughter, Alexandria, sitting on her lap. “She said (Christina) looks really bad. She said she weighs no more than 100 pounds and said she looked in really bad shape and said a man had her really tight by the wrist. She said Christina looked scared, she saw both of her tattoos and that’s what she knew her by. She said she didn’t look healthy like her pictures anymore at all.”
Mike Elzea and Deb Jo Gibbons, Young’s brother and sister, and Christina’s aunt and uncle, were also on hand for the vigil.
“It’s pretty tough really, you just got to try to keep hanging in there and doing it though,” Elzea said. “I just don’t feel like we’ve had a lot of help from the police really. I don’t. I just find no confidence in them. I’m sure they’ve tried to do a few things here and there, I think they need to do some more.”
The past two years have been hard for Gibbons. She can’t even talk about her niece without getting emotional.
“There’s always hope,” she said with light sobs. “We just want her to come home, it’s been two years and this is...”
She pauses for a few seconds to collect herself.
“We just want her to come home,” she says.
Speakers included Wes Neff, whose dog Zeus has been helping search for Christina, and Elizabeth Rivera, whose daughter has been missing nearly eight years from Fort Worth, Texas. She presented Young with a pillow that included Christina’s pictures. It was at that moment, Young came briefly unglued. Her tears flowed from her eyes, yet she still found the strength to stand and address the crowd.
The ceremony concluded with everyone joining hands in a circle for prayer.
“I told my husband earlier in the week, I almost feel like I’m preparing for a funeral,” Young said. “That’s how bad it gets you.”
The crowd then proceeded to the corner of the park to release the balloons into the blue November sky.
“Hopefully God’ll lead them, maybe even to Christina, to Peoria, maybe he’ll guide her home,” Young said.
Everyone released the balloons simultaneously.
They took off with the wind across the street, over Hannibal City Hall and floated to the east. They floated high and danced in the sky with each drift of air toward the place everyone is certain Christina is — Peoria.
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