A poster last year offering a $10,000 reward in the disappearance of a 33-year-old woman from Thief River Falls, Minn., caught Tracy Mayo's eye.
Thief River Falls is less than 150 miles from Mayo's home in Fargo, N.D., which, in the northern Great Plains, makes it a close neighbor. But what really grabbed Mayo's eye was that the Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation of Modesto put up the money.
"It's just amazing that their arms have reached out and touched people all over the nation," Mayo said. The same foundation offered a $5,000 reward when Mayo's mother, 64-year-old Nita Mayo of Nevada, vanished from the Donnell Vista Point in the Sierra Nevada east of Sonora in August 2005.
But unless a miracle occurs by Friday, an organization that has aided victims' families in 48 states will become a victim itself - of changing lives, changing times and a faltering economy.
The Sund-Carrington foundation's executive board will vote on whether to dissolve the decade-old nonprofit that helps families deal with the angst and horrendous grief of having a loved one disappear, while keeping missing persons cases in the public's eye.
Founders Francis and Carole Carrington of Eureka recently told directors they will no longer continue to help fund the foundation. They are retiring and will move to southern Nevada. The Carringtons are well into their 70s, and their business interests -- which include shopping centers - have felt the bite of the recession.
"We're very proud of what we've done," Francis Carrington said. "It's been a glorious 10 years. We've done a lot of good. (But) between age and the economy and moving and 10 different other things, it's just time."
Several months ago, the foundation began developing a strategic plan to fund itself without so much reliance upon the Carringtons' generosity.
"But now that we've lost our benefactor, we'd need money well before the plan would have been successful," said board chairman Philip Trompetter, who agreed two days ago to delay the vote by a week. This gives executive director Scott Webb a week to crunch more numbers and present a plan that would keep the foundation afloat through September.
"I think the writing's on the wall," Trompetter said. "Unless someone steps up, my expectation is that (Friday) we would initiate the dissolution process."
Nonprofits and charities everywhere are hurting because of the recession, so now is not the best time to expand fund-raising efforts. Major cases such as the murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy will compel people to contribute, Webb said. But there is an inherent risk in asking for donations during such grim times.
"It's very difficult identifying how to do that respectfully," he said. "You don't want to use such a horrendous situation to raise money. We're not like the Red Cross, which can raise money for hurricane relief during a hurricane."
The Carringtons contributed nearly half of the foundation's $249,165 income in fiscal 2008-09. The foundation has more than $250,000 in outstanding reward offers, though some expire after six months and only about 8 percent is ever claimed.
They formed the foundation in Modesto just weeks after the bodies of daughter Carole Sund, granddaughter Juli Sund and family friend Silvina Pelosso of Argentina were found in the Sierra Nevada and foothills after the trio disappeared during a sightseeing trip to Yosemite in February 1999.
"We didn't know what to do when we had our case," Francis Carrington said. "I had to self-educate. I learned I could post a reward and get things done. I learned more from the press than anybody else. When (law enforcement) had a press conference, I would not talk to anyone. But I watched the press question law enforcement and put it right to 'em. I could see where we had to get the message out. You have to get out and fight more and more."
He recognized the need to be out in front, to draw more media attention to the case while hope remained.
In the aftermath, the Carringtons realized others could benefit from what they had learned.
They created the foundation even before Cary Stayner was arrested and charged with the killings, along with the murder of Yosemite naturalist Joie Armstrong. Stayner was convicted and is on San Quentin's death row.
The Carringtons hired Kim Petersen, who had been a volunteer with the search effort, and she ran the foundation for eight years.
"When I started there, I gave up a career as an elementary school teacher to take on something brand new," Petersen said. "I knew nothing about it and had a fund with only $250,000 in it. It was a very scary step."
Two major cases propelled the foundation into the national spotlight: the disappearances of Modesto resident Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C., in spring 2001 and Laci Peterson in Modesto on Christmas Eve 2002. In both cases, the families turned to Kim Petersen and the foundation for help as they searched for their loved ones and after it was determined both women were murdered.
"They stepped in and helped me where most people are on their own," said Susan Levy, Chandra Levy's mother. "They provided a wonderful service."
Levy and her husband, Robert, held daily news conferences and appeared on numerous network and cable TV shows. The national media seized upon the story because of Chandra Levy's relationship with then-U.S. Rep. Gary Condit. Police never considered him a suspect, and an El Salvadoran immigrant has since been charged with her murder.
Likewise, Petersen aided Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mom, and other family members, urging them to meet with the media during the search for the 27-year-old, who was expecting her first child.
Laci's disappearance almost overnight became a major national story. Like so many others, it ended in tragedy. Her husband, Scott, was charged with killing Laci and unborn son, Conner.
"Her other important role was as a liaison between law enforcement and the victims," Rocha said of Kim Petersen. "Prior to this happening, I'd never really had any experience with law enforcement. Kim took the time to explain things, the procedures and processes. The police couldn't tell us much, and I was in the dark about everything. That's why it was so important to have her there."
A jury convicted Scott Peterson of murder, and he joined Stayner on San Quentin's death row.
The job exacted an emotional and physical toll on Petersen. She left in 2007.
"You put so much into it that it hurts you," Francis Carrington said. "Kim was just wonderful."
Webb took over as executive director in November 2007, overseeing a staff of four employees. In its 10-year history, the Sund-Carrington Foundation has paid out 47 rewards totaling $250,000 in 48 states, he said.
It's been an effective and necessary organization, but too reliant upon the Carringtons' checkbook.
(The Carringtons have) done their share to help," Susan Levy said. "Out of their own pain, they've allowed others to be a little stronger."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.