The Missing Children Society of Canada opened its doors in 1986.
The Calgary-based group's mission is to provide crucial support for families going through a traumatic search for their children while also ensuring the investigation into the disappearance keeps its momentum, long after the media and public attention dissipates.
A year after the MCSC's founding, a woman called from Ontario. Her name was Lyneth Mann-Lewis, and her 21-month-old son Jermaine was missing.
That phone call would kickstart a decades-long journey of heartbreak and hope — one that ended, against all odds, in sheer joy.
Amanda Pick is the CEO of the society. After years in the not-for-profit sector and working with troubled youth, she took on the top job at the MCSC to replace its founder in 2010.
"When I heard about the mission, it just touched my heart immediately. I have two daughters and the sun rises and sets on them. I could connect instantly to the families and to the work, and that's really important to me," she told HuffPost Canada.
Pick got briefed on the Mann-Lewis file by staff members at the society, but it was Ted Davis, a retired police officer that has worked with the MCSC for more than two decades, who brought her up to speed. The MCSC utilizes several retired police officers to aid its investigations in cooperation with local police services and the RCMP.
"This was Ted's file," Pick said. "I learned exactly what had happened, the work that we had done, and of course it touched my heart the same way it's touched everybody's."
Last Wednesday — after years of work and hundreds of interviews and tips — Pick and Davis called Mann-Lewis to start an entirely new chapter in the case. They told her that her son is alive, that they know where he is, and that they're going to take her to meet him.
"She caught her breath. It took her breath away. It really did," Pick said.
"Her emotions just flooded through her. She wept. She was shocked in the same instant. You could see that. You could see that there was just this flood of emotion, but she was trying to reconcile that news."
"You could watch her processing 31 years all in one instant."
Pick and Davis then flew with Mann-Lewis to meet Jermaine two days later.
A few days after that, back in Toronto, Mann-Lewis stood in Toronto's police headquarters to speak to the media about the finding.
Police allege Jermaine's father, Allan Mann Jr., abducted him during a court-ordered visit in the late '80s and took him to the U.S. For more than three decades, authorities said, the two lived "a life of lies." Jermaine had grown up thinking his mother was dead.
Mann Jr. is facing multiple charges in the U.S. and will be extradited to Canada eventually for a charge of abduction.
At the conference, Mann-Lewis spoke of how she got to cook for her son, how she had to grab his head to make sure he was real, how he kept telling her "you have my eyes!"
Jermaine is now 33 years old.
"I am the proof that after 31 long years of suffering, one should never give up," Mann-Lewis told media on Monday. "Be patient, be strong, and believe that all things are possible and that anything can transpire."
Pick said this resilience and patience from Mann-Lewis was the dynamo that kept the "exhaustive" investigation, which involved the Toronto police's fugitive squad and ultimately the U.S. Marshals Service.
Although the Mann-Lewis case is extraordinary and has received considerable public attention, it's just one of many that the MCSC has worked on.
It's been challenging, but there's no other option but to keep this going.
"We have thousands of success stories over the years that we don't even talk about."
The society, Pick explained, gets new cases referred regularly from police services or directly from families. The only requirement, she said, is that the case be officially reported to local police before becoming registered with the MCSC.
"I think it's really important that people know that ... the police are the driving force behind missing children investigations. They are first and foremost. When a family has a missing child, they should — and do — go directly to police."
"What we are is a resource of support to families and police in that effort to bring their child home."
In the Mann-Lewis case, for example, MCSC's private investigators were able to keep the momentum going, gathering information and travelling all across North America conducting interviews to assist police. Pick said these investigators receive some compensation, "but it's quite minimal in comparison to any of the professional opportunities that they would have."
As for funding, MCSC relies on individual contributions and partnerships with companies like Microsoft and Kijiji to raise awareness of cases and provide people with tools to contribute to investigations, she said. But the situation is still difficult.
"It's been challenging, but there's no other option but to keep this going. It's just that important," Pick noted, adding that the society's board members have sometimes had to personally make sure people get paid.
And though high-profile cases like Mann-Lewis attract attention — and possibly financial support — for the group, Pick said the society can't always talk about its accomplishments due to families' privacy concerns.
"When someone's child is missing, they want everybody to know so that we can help find that child. But as soon as that child is found, immediately that family goes into an entire new process which is a reunification process but also a healing process. The needs of the family change in that moment, and we're there for them and all our partners are there, but it requires privacy and time for them to move forward," she said.
'I'm filled with hope'
"As much as I want to be able to tell everybody what we're doing and how we're doing it, that we are making that difference, that we're protecting kids and finding missing children, there's a sensitive balance there."
Despite these challenges, Pick said, it's easy for her to wake up every day and go to work. She says people often ask her if her job is "sad" or "overwhelming," but it's the complete opposite.
"I wake up going into our organization [thinking] 'OK, here's a new day for new hope and one step closer to protecting a child, to keeping a child safe and ultimately to finding a missing child and bringing them home,'" Pick said.
"I'm filled with hope. You sit with Lyneth, [even] prior to when she learned that Jermaine had been found, and you can't have a conversation with her that you're not inspired. Her family, herself, they are an incredible example of hope and inspiration and strength."
With files from The Canadian Press