There may be numerous reasons why Monica Caison has spent the last 26 years volunteering almost every waking minute of her time advocating for missing children and adults and providing resources and support for their families. If you ask her, she can’t pinpoint just one reason, saying there were many moments in her life that helped shape what she is today – founder and head of the Community United Effort also known as the CUE Center for Missing Persons.
Based out of Wilmington, North Carolina, the CUE Center has become a national network of volunteers, offering search and recovery, advocacy and a range of services that to date has helped more than 12,000 desperate families living through one of the worst times of their lives.
TROUBLED TEEN YEARS
Growing up in Florida, Monica lived what she calls the “all American lifestyle” with 10 siblings in a close-knit, musically-talented, Catholic household until divorce literally threw her into the “heart of the ghetto.”
“My parents divorced at a time when Catholics didn’t divorce,” she said. It broke the family apart with older siblings joining the military or getting married. Her mother moved with her and the other three elementary age children from a three-story house to a two-bedroom “shack with a dirt backyard” in Florida.
Custody battles ensued with Monica bouncing between the two parents until she settled in with her father. But two marriages by her mother exposed her and her younger siblings to alcohol and family violence. For a period of time, there were parental kidnappings and children being sent to group homes.
“We were thrown into these situations and we were totally naïve,” she said of herself and her siblings. “It spun us out more to the streets and to friends. We grew up fast.”
GETTING IT TOGETHER
Monica was living in New Hanover County in North Carolina when she met her future husband at church. She had gotten her own place and had brought a younger brother and sister to live with her. The couple married and had five children of their own. Monica became the parent that was always at school offering to help, serving on committees and helping out with troubled kids.
It was during that time a group of kids wanted to do a charity fundraiser and Monica, out of the blue, suggested raising money for missing persons.
“I said, ‘no one ever does that.’ I felt no one cared,” she said. She thought of the cause as she had been exposed to a couple of families behind the scenes who had missing loved ones and she had seen their pain.
Still, it wasn’t something that truly inspired her to do more at that time, she said. She called John Goad, director of the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons, to get some government statistics and was connected to Karen Brown in Wilmington. When she met Karen at a Pizza Hut, together they planned a kiddie carnival to raise funds for Brown’s Public Safety and Awareness campaign.
By that time, Monica had plenty of experience helping with school events and festivals so she tapped into her resources and put together the event. That day, actor Henry Winkler, who happened to be in Wilmington, popped in out of nowhere and lent his support to the cause.
“He said that everyone needs to help bring awareness to missing kids,” Monica recalled. “That same week, leading up to the fundraiser, a friend of mine’s daughter went missing. She was found days later — murdered. Watching that play out in the news, I decided to invite the mom down and it was a very raw and emotional day.”
Monica said the cast of “Matlock,” filming in the area at that time, came out to dedicate a temporary wall constructed to list all the missing kids in North Carolina. “Sadly, we had tons of photos,” she said.
Monica had begun helping Karen Brown with her program when Karen decided to move north to fulfill a dream she had of opening a home for troubled youth.
“She wanted me to take over and I said ‘no, my plate’s full,’” Monica said. “I would avoid her like a bill collector. But one day there was a bag hung on my doorknob with a 10 page letter she had left. It said that she believed people are brought into your life for a reason. She wanted me to dissolve her organization and do something bigger. She said she saw something in me.”
The letter did the trick and the two met to talk. “I don’t know if it’s just meant to be but I rode to Raleigh with her and I signed the paperwork transferring the nonprofit. She asked what name I wanted to call the organization and I said CUE — Community United Effort.”
Monica said CUE was born with the $76 check Karen turned over to her from her nonprofit bank account.
“When my husband asked me what I did that day, I said, “Well, I started a national nonprofit.’”
Her children became her first volunteers and her husband became her first donor but even he was skeptical that people would donate their weekends to help. Monica found a book on starting a nonprofit and followed all the rules, she said.
“If I had listened to everyone who tried to discourage me, it would’ve never happened.”
A NAME AND AN IDEA
With little more than a name and an idea on what CUE would grow into, Monica said she relied on God to bring the right people into her life.
“People just kept coming to me offering help,” she said, noting that different people had different talents and resources to provide.
“I was always reading and trying to do the right thing. Once I had a board of directors who brought in their expertise, it just kept growing. John Goad was a great inspiration and a mentor to me. He had experience on the search side and had a wealth of knowledge. He helped me learn how to work with law enforcement. I thought, ‘I need to be taken seriously now,’” she said.
While CUE began Sept. 22, 1994, it was more of an organization to build awareness. Monica was finding out how she could help. She began interacting with law enforcement but not doing searches. She didn’t want to step on toes figuring they were just appeasing her. For a couple of years she worked runaway cases. She continued to educate herself, seeking training on how to work murder and suicide cases.
“I feel like God kept bringing people into my life that knew how to do things like paperwork,” she said. “I was willing to take slow steps to build a solid foundation. I was always willing to learn. Then a DA told me that the squeaky wheel gets the attention. He said, ‘You are the squeaky wheel in North Carolina.’ He told me that if his loved one went missing, I would be the first one he called.”
Utilizing the media on her runaway cases got the attention of people who wanted to help. As the Internet became more useful, CUE became inundated with volunteers. A class at UNC-Wilmington took on a project to build CUE a website. By then, Monica had an office near the university. And with every problem and every event, Monica learned more and more about how to operate CUE to help others.
A LANDMARK CASE
On April 22, 1998, a young woman named Peggy Carr was abducted from a parking lot in Wilmington in broad daylight. Two men on a week-long crime spree carjacked her and took her to a rural area and murdered her. It took over seven months to find her body. Her family was from Ohio, so the tragedy reached across several states, taking it to a national level.
“The Carr case was our landmark case,” Monica said. “It developed us from a child-like organization to a grown up. It put us at the next step. We determined we needed to know how to walk these families through the struggle.”
The CUE Center began facilitating the search along with law enforcement. Donations came in to provide housing for the Carr family. The victim’s mother was determined not to leave the area without her daughter. Eventually, someone donated a condo for her to stay in.
Monica stayed in daily communication with law enforcement. “Every day I was with them, searching, running down tips. We set up a hotline. A volunteer put the phone in her house and she would type up a tips log that was picked up by the SBI daily. This crisis taught us what had to be done,” Monica said.
More responsibility brought a requirement for more training. Every event took the CUE Center to a next level. All along the way, the nonprofit remained 100 percent volunteer operated with no one getting a paycheck, Monica said.
“We became truly engulfed in each case, working hand-in-hand. We became advocates for the cause, for the families, for the victims and for the reason that somebody has to call, somebody has to help and somebody has to lead,” she said.
Monica said if a victim was missing from or in North Carolina, CUE will work the case. It has to have a North Carolina connection but can reach nationally. One objective of the program explained on the website is to continue to build a national network of dedicated volunteers for a wider reach of services.
The CUE Center volunteers are there for the endurance. When there is a recovery and the dust settles, so to speak, Monica said everyone goes away.
“When everyone goes home, it’s still your emergency and we are there until there is a resolution,” Monica said. “It could be 10 years or more.”
The families continue to hurt and continue to need the kind support of the CUE Center.
A HEAVY WEIGHT
Spending hours searching for someone’s loved one carries a heavy weight for Monica and the CUE volunteers.
“The concept of not finding someone and facing the loved ones with no answers makes one feel like they failed,” Monica said. “I would feel depressed driving home as other searchers experienced the same feelings. When I realized that each search is successful because we know where they are not, we were eliminating space. Eventually, we would get to the right place.”
Monica said she had to embed those thoughts into her head so that rather than feeling defeated, she could feel that there was promise that today or the next day would be the day they would be found.
“People have no idea what families go through when they have to go back to work knowing their family member is still out there somewhere,” she said. “I know we make a difference in the lives of the families of missing people. Until you have a body, there is hope. When you have a body, there is healing and hope for justice.”
To the community, Monica says, “Reach out to help.” Get involved in the cause.
“In every missing person case the community holds the key,” she said. “Someone saw something and they don’t realize they need to call it in. So often we are late getting the information. Social media helps to get information out there more quickly, and then people call in. They don’t even realize they hold key information until the case is put out there.”
A 24-hour hotline can be reached at 910-232-1687. For more information on the CUE Center for Missing Persons or to make a donation, visit NCMissingPersons.org