Project Jason Founder Wins U.S. Department of Justice 2010 Volunteer for Victims Award

We believe this is the first time in the history of this event that this award has gone to someone from the cause of missing persons, so it’s a huge deal to our cause! It also signifies a shift in this cause now deemed in the “crime” category by the Department of Justice.

I (with some fantastic help of a few special people) submitted this award nomination. So I am almost as jazzed as Kelly about the award 🙂

This article is from AOL News writer David Lohr, who is very special to the cause of missing persons.

Congratulations, Kelly!

— Ronnie Rhode…

Her Mission for the Missing Earns Mom National Kudos

By David Lohr

(April 20) — A Nebraska woman who emerged from the “nightmare” of her son’s disappearance to bring hope to other families of missing people has received unprecedented national recognition for her efforts.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime last week named Kelly Jolkowski, president and founder of the Omaha, Neb.-based nonprofit Project Jason, as its 2010 Volunteer for Victims Honoree.

The announcement came at the National Crime Victims’ Service Awards, which paid tribute to Jolkowski and eight other people for “outstanding work on behalf of crime victims.” The awards, which were held Friday in Washington, D.C., are part of the OVC’s National Crime Victims Rights Week, April 18-24.

What makes Jolkowski’s award especially significant is that it’s the first one in memory to be given to an advocate of missing people.

“I’m honored to accept this award on behalf of all missing persons, the families who miss them and in my son’s name,” Jolkowski said upon receiving the award. “The secondary victims, the families, deserve a voice and to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect as they go through what is undoubtedly the most difficult time in their lives.”

One Mother’s Story

Jolkowski’s own family ordeal began almost nine years ago, as she recalled in a recent interview with AOL News.

“It was June 13, 2001, and Jason was 19 at the time,” Jolkowski said. “My husband and I were at work when the restaurant he worked at called and asked him to come in early. To our knowledge, Jason said he would be glad to, but told them he would need a ride — his car was in the shop. They said they would have a girl that works there pick him up at a high school that is about seven blocks away from our house.”

It’s believed that Jason got dressed in his work uniform, which included dress pants and dress shoes, and then set off for the school.

“The girl that was supposed to meet him waited and waited, and he never showed up,” Jolkowski said. “She went back to work, and I didn’t know anything until it was getting to be later in the afternoon and my husband called me at work and said, ‘Have you heard anything from Jason?’ and I said, ‘No.’

“It was not like him not to show up. He was very responsible, so we were worried right away.”

Jolkowski says she and her husband drove around looking for Jason, but did not immediately notify the police.

“Like most people, we thought we had to wait 24 hours to report him missing. That is a perception you get from TV shows, so we didn’t call the police till the next morning,” she said. “They came over and took a report. The officer was nice enough, but when he left, he said, ‘Oh, he is probably just spending the night at a friend’s house.’ I am thinking, Jason is 19 years old. He hasn’t spent the night at a friend’s house since he was probably 10.”

Jolkowski was unconvinced her son vanished of his own accord, given that he hadn’t taken his money out of the bank, and “there is also no evidence that something was going wrong in his mind that would have caused him to commit suicide,” she said.

In fact, Jason had a lot going for him and was looking toward the future, she said. “He had been attending a local college part time and doing the radio announcer curriculum. There was this radio station where the college kids are the DJs, and he just loved that. He found a niche and a personality and people just loved him.

“He was just a really good kid, and we never had to worry that he was out doing things that got him in trouble.”

As the days passed with no word, Jolkowski had trouble finding a source of advice or comfort — partly because Jason’s age meant he was classified as a missing adult, rather than a missing child.

“We were so numb in the beginning that we didn’t know what to do,” Jolkowski said. “It seemed like it took awhile to get out of that initial shock. … I went to a computer and started researching on the Internet and finding another shock, of how many missing persons there were. I would look at those and I would say, ‘That won’t be us. This nightmare isn’t going to continue,’ but, unfortunately, it has.”

While conducting her research, Jolkowski discovered the Iowa Missing Person Information Clearinghouse website, which collects and displays information and photos about that state’s missing people. She learned that the clearinghouse had been created as a result of a law — and saw an opportunity.

“I took that Iowa law and patterned it for Nebraska and tried to get that passed in Nebraska,” Jolkowski said. “I knew nothing about politics and the legislation and how that works, so I pretty much was learning from scratch as we went along.”

Jason’s Law eventually was passed, but it took several years of hard work and determination. During that time, Jolkowski decided to start a nonprofit to assist the families of missing adults and children. She would call it Project Jason.

Reaching Out to Others

The frustrations of her own search for answers were still fresh in Jolkowski’s mind as she envisioned Project Jason.

“When Jason went missing … we didn’t know anything about getting fingerprints off his possessions or saving something of his for DNA or trying to get dental records,” Jolkowski said. “Nobody came to us and told us these things.

“We did not know where to turn for advice or support,” she continued, “which is why we started Project Jason. Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but to provide families of the missing with useful information.”

In addition to helping families better understand the search process, Project Jason also offers resources such as free online counseling, bimonthly poster campaigns and organization for grassroots efforts to pass missing-persons legislation.

Since Project Jason was founded in October 2003, it has helped countless families and, in some cases, reunited them with their loved ones.

“We had a case of two missing children who had been abducted by their mother, and the [rest of] the family found us on the Internet,” Jolkowski said. “I convinced them to write the story, and we published it on our website.” When a man in a distant city — who had seen the girls and suspected they were abducted — saw the story, he contacted the police; as a result, the children were reunited with their father.

In another case, a mentally ill man who had been missing for 14 years was located after someone recognized him on the Project Jason site.

“It doesn’t matter if they are a child, an adult, someone suffering mental illness, a prostitute or a drug abuser,” Jolkowski says. “I don’t care what the situation is; all the cases are treated alike. If they are missing, there is a family out there that loves them, and that family deserves answers.”

Despite the organization’s successes, Jolkowski said, she still has to navigate a lot of hurdles — like the sheer expense of keeping it running.

“It’s really hard to get donations,” Jolkowski said. “After we started, we got a lot of media attention, and I had this dream that I would go to the post office box and it would be full of donations. I went there a few days later, and there was nothing. Some months, you get no donations; sometimes you will get $25 or some small amount, and that is what we work with.”

‘Catalyst for Change’

Being named a Volunteer for Victims Honoree by the OVC, however, could go a long way toward raising awareness of the cause, as Jolkowski herself noted during Friday’s ceremony.

“For this work to be honored can be a catalyst for the change of the mindset of the public,” she said, “as it pertains to the aid given to these suffering families.”

The OVC was established by the 1984 Victims of Crime Act to oversee diverse programs that benefit victims of crime. It provides substantial funding to state victim assistance and compensation programs — the lifeline services that help victims to heal — and supports the training of criminal justice and allied professionals in the rights and needs of crime victims.

Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is one of many who believes Jolkowski was the appropriate choice for the OVC award.

“We thank the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office for Victims of Crime for recognizing such a worthy member of our community in such a significant and prominent manner,” Allen said in a press release. “Furthermore, we applaud Kelly Jolkowski, whose outstanding work on behalf of the missing and their families resulted in this deserved honor today. We are proud of her and fortunate to benefit from her knowledge, her talents, and her dedication.”

Written by: Ronnie