Volunteers Say They're Not Giving Up in Search for Avonte Oquendo
LONG ISLAND CITY — Eric Wright, a 23-year-old from Washington Heights, first heard about missing autistic teenager Avonte Oquendo while he was watching the news last month, and knew right away that he wanted to help.
"I immediately said, 'I want to do something,'" Wright said. "It really touched me."
It's been more than a month since 14-year-old Avonte went missing, and while some of the initial attention surrounding his case appears to have quieted, his family and volunteers continue to man a 24-hour command center near the Queens school where he was last seen.
"No one’s losing the faith," said Wright, a manager at Whole Foods in Manhattan who said he's been volunteering at the headquarters nearly every day. "I plan on being here until Avonte comes home."
After working for the first few weeks in makeshift tents across the street from The Riverview School, Avonte's family, friends and search volunteers are now operating out of a trailer and an RV parked nearby, on Borden Avenue near Center Boulevard.
Bob Wilkins, 69, a retired FedEx worker from Linden, N.J., lent the volunteers his trailer after he and his wife heard about Avonte on the news and felt compelled to help.
"We just happened to see it on TV, where they asked for volunteers and if anyone had an RV," Wilkins said.
The trailer is being used as a command center to distribute fliers while an RV provides refuge for Avonte’s family and the search volunteers, giving them someplace to rest and get out of the cold.
Wilkins said people have continued to show up at the headquarters looking to assist.
"People come all hours of the day and night," he said. "People are just trying to help in any way they can."
That help comes largely in the form of distributing fliers with Avonte’s photo, which blanket the area. In the back of the RV, piles of fliers in different languages — Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Polish — sit in boxes.
On Monday morning, a group from the 1199SEIU healthcare workers' union stopped by to lend a hand, and Wright sent them off with stacks of fliers and rolls of tape.
Volunteers are encouraged to take the posters with them to hang around the neighborhoods where they live or work, and even fax them to family and friends in other cities.
In Jersey City, a car club called Jokas Asylum has been helping in the search for Avonte, handing out fliers last week near the Journal Square PATH train station and conducting a search on Saturday.
"He likes trains, and trains go anywhere," the group’s president, who goes by the club name Prez Realz, said by phone last week. "Some people don’t even know that he’s still missing."
The search effort is also still going strong on social media, with people around the country sharing Avonte’s photo on Twitter. A Facebook page, Bring Avonte Home, has regularly been posting updates in the case and has more than 20,000 followers.
The NYPD said it has investigated hundreds of tips and surveillance videos in the hunt for Avonte, who is autistic and cannot communicate verbally. He was last seen on Oct. 4 wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers. He is 5-foot-3 and weighs 125 pounds.
Anyone with information is asked to call the NYPD's Crime Stoppers Hotline at 800-577-TIPS. The public can also submit tips by logging onto the Crime Stoppers website at www.nypdcrimestoppers.com or by texting their tips to 274637(CRIMES), then entering TIP577.