Drawing Strength from Sorrow: The Surviving Parents Coalition

10/26/2007 at 06:00 AM EDT

Drawing Strength from Sorrow: The Surviving Parents Coalition
(from left) Erin and Samantha Rinnion, Ed & Elizabeth Smart and Violet, Marc & Polly Klass
JOE PUGLIESE
When Marc Klaas's 12-year-old daughter Polly was abducted from her bed in Petaluma, Calif., in 1993, he seemed to be coping well – until the second night after she went missing. "I got up and quietly left the hotel room, walked across the boulevard to a vacant supermarket parking lot, got down on my hands and knees and started screaming to God. I was out of my mind," he says. One of the few sources of comfort he had during those 64 days before his only child's body was found was David Collins, whose 10-year-old son vanished from a San Francisco street corner nine years earlier. Collins's support is something Marc has never forgotten. "I glommed onto him," Marc, 58, said. "He could relate to me. He never found out what happened to his son, but he was still standing nearly 10 years later, and that was huge."

Since then Marc has been the one offering comfort and support to other parents of missing and abducted children, who in turn have offered support to other parents with similar tragedies. Along the way, many of the parents have become close friends. They've cried in each other's arms, shown up at the trials of their children's killers and been there for each other when it seemed like no one else understood their pain. "We all share membership in this sad club that no one wants to belong to," says Erin Runnion, 32, whose daughter Samantha, 5, was abducted on July 15, 2002, and found dead the next day. "There's a solidarity and an intimacy and a love for one another that is very healing." Now they've taken the collective power of their grief and are channeling it into the Surviving Parents Coalition, a group they formed to lobby for strong anti-child-predator legislation. "There is strength in numbers," says Runnion, "and this cause deserves an army."

When Rebecca DeMauro's 12-year-old daughter Andria was abducted and murdered in 1999 in Arkansas, the person she wanted most to speak to was someone she'd never met: Colleen Nick, whose 6-year-old daughter Morgan was abducted in 1995 in Arkansas and is still missing.

DeMauro: I was familiar with her case because it was so high-profile. I wanted to reach out to her. I was surrounded by people but I felt so alone. Nobody understood. Somebody got the message to her. One hour after we found out Andi had been murdered, Colleen called me, and we talked for probably two hours, and we cried together. And from that point on, we formed this emotional bond. She drove over two hours every day for Andi's killer's trial. When things were especially emotional [in court], she would write notes of encouragement to me, and somebody would tap me on the shoulder and hand them to me. She was a powerful force for me.

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