Maureen Himebaugh still celebrates her son's birthday each year and writes him poems, even though he's been missing for 26 years.
"I don't know if he's still out there, but he just might be. But if not, it's OK, because I accept he may be gone," Himebaugh told a crowd of about 200 that had assembled at the first Missing Persons in New Jersey event, held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
Himebaugh, of Middle Township, Cape May County, last saw her son when he was 11. He left home to walk to a neighborhood playground; police only recovered his shoe.
Himebaugh was the keynote speaker at the event, hosted by the New Jersey State Police to gather DNA from the families of missing persons and to help the families share stories and feelings.
State Police Det. Sgt. Joel Trella, who organized the program, said he wanted to do more for families who sometimes feel ignored. Other states, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan, have held similar events or are planning them, Trella said. Michigan reported that its event this year helped solve 70 cases, he said.
"This is family oriented, to help the families form bonds and also to collect data we need to help find missing persons," he said.
Between 14,000 and 16,000 people are reported missing in New Jersey each year; about 1,100 of those missing-persons cases, dating back to 1969, are unsolved, according to the state police.
There also are 300 unidentified remains.
More than 30 New Jersey families who have missing loved ones attended the event. Others, whose loved ones or their remains have been found, also came.
Trella said many of the families previously had provided DNA, dental records, and other biological information that would help with the search. But the technology is fairly new, and some families have not given DNA samples.
Trella stressed that the data would only be used in identifying crime victims or helping reunite families.
Himebaugh agreed to speak at the event to offer other families some advice on how to cope.
"If I can help anyone, I want to. I can talk about how to make it better," she said.
She recommended families keep their missing loved ones "alive" by displaying their photographs and talking about them. She said she also makes a point of doing things that make her happy because that is what her son would have wanted.
Guy Madsen and his sister, Eileen Tummino, brought smiling pictures of their mother, Julie Madsen, to show others. Their mother disappeared during a walk in 2009, not far from the beach, where Guy Madsen had a summer home in South Seaside.
They already have provided DNA, but came to support other families and tell their story.
Their mother, 72, had a mild case of Alzheimer's disease. No trace of her was ever found after she was reported missing two hours after she left for her walk.
"I just live my life, but I never forget her," Tummino said. She has contacted psychics and now suspects her mother might have been abducted.
Guy Madsen said it was a painful experience -- especially the not knowing -- but that the family had to move on.
"We came here to share warmth with others who have had this happen and to bring attention to her case," he said.
Denisha Molley, of Atlantic City, came with her grandmother, Nancy Stokelin. Molley's brother, Dashand Stokelin, disappeared in November.
Stokelin was 36 at the time and had been attending a local culinary school.
Molley said that she planned to meet with detectives at the event and to provide DNA in the hope it could lead to a break in the case.
"I need to put the word out that his story matters and he has loved ones out here looking for him, Molley said.