ZEPHYRHILLS — Roy Brown and B.J. Jimenez became friends through tragedy.
Brown's daughter, Amanda, was kidnapped and presumed murdered on Sept. 11, 1998. Jimenez's nephew, Zachary Bernhardt, was abducted on the same day two years later. He has never been found.
Brown and Jimenez have spent the years since fighting to bring attention to missing children's cases, while also battling to keep their own lives on track amid unrelenting grief.
Now they are creating a new outlet for their efforts. Today, Brown and Jimenez will open the doors of the A-Z Missing Children's Outreach Center.
The 'A' and the 'Z' refer to Amanda and Zachary, but as Brown says, "A to Z covers all missing kids."
It's a resource center offering education on keeping children safe, outreach to law enforcement and support for families who have lost children, including a 24-hour support line.
It's starting out small. Jimenez, a 44-year-old school bus driver, has cleared out two rooms of her mobile home on a rural lane in Zephyrhills to be the office. The walls are decorated with framed photos and blown-up posters of Florida's missing kids. Amanda and Zachary's faces beam from every corner.
Amanda was abducted from her mother's Seffner home and killed at age 7. A crab fisherman named Willie Crain who had befriended her mother was convicted of her murder, though Amanda's body has never been found. Crain is on death row.
Zachary, 9, vanished early one morning from his Savannah Trace apartment in Clearwater. Police don't know whether he was abducted or ran away.
The children's fates haunt their families every day.
"We live everyone's worst nightmare," Jimenez said — to have a child taken.
Brown, 57, struggled for a long time after Amanda's death to do anything at all. He couldn't work. He didn't go to parties or do anything happy people do.
"I was a hateful, vengeful person," he said. But his solace was in meeting with other parents of missing children, attending candlelight vigils and joining search parties. Since losing Amanda and Zachary, Brown and Jimenez say they have gotten involved in some way every time a child has gone missing in Florida.
Brown didn't need therapy, he said, as much as needed to connect with people who felt his pain. He still needs it.
"This isn't something that just goes away," he said.
He and his wife, Sylvia, moved to Kentucky for about two years to try to make a new start. Last summer, Jimenez needed an escape too and went to visit them. They had long talked about starting an organization, and that visit became the turning point.
The Browns moved back to Florida last fall. Brown found steady work in a body shop, and the center began to take shape.
"It's about the families," Brown said of the A-Z mission. "We understand — the greatest fear doesn't hit you until the media's gone and the police are gone and you're by yourself."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.