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Tiffany Sessions' mother writes book about the missing UF student, her own transformation

VALRICO

Hilary Sessions remembers getting the phone call.

Then came the sleepless nights.

In Gainesville, an intensive search had begun for her 20-year-old daughter, Tiffany. With the search dragging on and the despair setting in, she turned to writing to remember the special moments they shared.

When she found herself deep in a void that held no answers, the memories would flash through her mind. Despite the pain, she felt compelled to write about them:

• Two-year-old Tiffany dumping an entire bottle of bubble bath into her tub.

• Seven-year-old Tiffany sitting up perfectly straight atop her pony, Becky, riding off on a fox hunt.

• Eighteen-year-old Tiffany going off to college to study business.

• Tiffany saying goodbye one last time after Christmas break in 1988. That last lingering hug would stick in her mother's mind forever.

As Hilary Sessions chronicled the special moments, a book began to emerge.

Writing exhausted her and helped her finally fall asleep. She said it allowed her to take the situation and turn it into a positive. The project also kept her focused on the beauty of her daughter's life.

"Tiffany was my North Star," Sessions said in a recent interview. "She kept me centered on everything."

• • •

Twenty-two years later, Sessions has completed Where's My Tiffany?, a portrait of the young woman who disappeared from the University of Florida in 1989. Tiffany told a roommate that she was going for a walk and never returned. An extensive search provided no clues.

For six weeks, cameras followed Hilary and her ex-husband, Patrick, who had offered a $250,000 reward. Charter buses brought in more than 700 searchers. Across the state, hundreds of thousands of fliers begged for clues about the student with blond hair, brown eyes and a radiant smile.

In the beginning of the book, Hilary Sessions gives readers personal glimpses of a girl who was an accomplished equestrian who could ride a horse without a bit, a young woman who loved tennis and boating.

She was also interested in numbers and finance. At the University of Florida, she majored in business and aspired to become a chief financial officer someday. The dean of the business school had been so impressed that he had convinced her to specialize in finance.

Fifty carefully selected pictures of Tiffany move her beyond the missing-person picture that became so familiar to the public.

"I wanted to bring her to life again and share her with everyone," Hilary Sessions says. "I wanted everyone to know how important she was to me."

Then there are details of the case: four chapters spanning more than 20 years of investigation. Sessions said she included them because it was time to set the record straight.

• • •

The book also devotes a chapter to Hilary Sessions' personal perspective of the case and the toll it took on her family relationships. She describes a metamorphosis from caring mother to advocate and educator.

Ivana DiNova, founder of the former organization Missing Children Help Center, thinks Hilary Sessions has boldly shared the message that any missing child is your child.

"I admire her strength and ability to go on," DiNova said. "She has the capacity to work with law enforcement even when it comes to the children of others. She's absolutely been one to reach out and understand."

More important, Sessions describes how she went from being a victim to a survivor. She found a new purpose in providing information and training that would give others a better chance of escaping an abductor.

Months after her daughter's disappearance, she addressed 1,500 college students at the University of South Florida about self-defense and preventive measures to avoid becoming a victim. They heard about the importance of having their fingerprints, DNA samples and a scent item stored away.

She moved into leadership roles such as executive director of the Child Protection Education of America organization during 2004-2009.

She also has served as an instructor and a member of the board of directors for radKIDS, an organization that teaches children life skills and drills that can save them from being taken.

Stephen Daley, founder of radKIDS, says Sessions is a passionate crusader who has assisted in everything from recovery work and reunification projects to delivering search-and-rescue bloodhounds.

The former police officer says Sessions has become one of his heroes.

"What stands out to me is that when she was looking for her daughter, the focus turned on all children," Daley said. "Prevention is where her heart rested at the end."

Sessions, now a member of the Surviving Parents Coalition, has became a friend of many parents who have endured similar losses. She has spoken with the father of Elizabeth Smart and to the parents of Jennifer Kesse.

She has also formed a close bond with Mark Lunsford, father of Jessica Lunsford.

"He and I are like brother and sister," Sessions said. "Sometimes we don't even have to say anything. We just know."

• • •

Although she isn't a lobbyist, she says she has helped shepherd many lawmaking committees and has celebrated the passing of various laws that advocate more help for victims.

One of them carries the name of her daughter. The Jennifer Kesse and Tiffany Sessions Missing Persons Act allowed the state to assist in cases involving missing adults younger than 26 and missing adults 26 and older who were suspected by law enforcement to be in danger.

Beyond her influence on victim advocacy laws, Sessions remains committed to making sure that parents think about the unthinkable. Her book's final chapter, "Missing Children — What Can You Do?" includes a number of suggestions and resources to help parents. She emphasizes that time is critical in locating a missing child.

"Every minute that people are not searching, the radius of the search area becomes bigger," Sessions said.

When she discusses the possibility of finding her daughter, she is divided between her realism and hope.

"I live in a world of black or white, alive or dead. There's no gray. … I know there is still a slim chance, but if you give up the hope, then you're totally lost."

Meanwhile, Tiffany's room remains largely the same. On her bed lies her favorite white rabbit that she used to drag by the ears as a toddler. Alf, the beloved character from the 1980s TV show, and other cherished stuffed animals sit undisturbed.

Sessions wonders what letter grade her daughter would give her on the book.

"Tiffy and I used to grade each other on everything. She would grade me on cooking. I would grade her on her room and her pony's tack," Sessions said. "On this book I'm looking for the A."

Belinda Kramer can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

>>Fast facts

The book

The self-published Where's My Tiffany? is available at iUniverse.com through April. (See bit.ly/h2rBzk). Hilary Sessions says it will be for sale on Amazon and at other booksellers at a later date.

Tiffany Sessions' mother writes book about the missing UF student, her own transformation 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 3:31am]

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