Thank You: Giving Thanks to the Men Who Helped Our Daughter When Our Worst Fear Came True

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It’s Thanksgiving week, and that means it’s going to be a week filled with very grateful, thankful people – and there is nothing wrong with that. I do wish more people would focus more regularly on being thankful for all they don’t have rather than being upset by all they don’t; but that’s not really my problem. Today, my plan was to share a post about holiday hosting. Tips, tricks, and a few of my favorites.

Instead, I’m pushing it back to later in the week, and I’m going to share some thanks. Not your typical thanks. But I’m going to give thanks to two men whom I’ve never met before, whose names I don’t know. Two men who protected my baby. Two men who kept her safe, calm, and helped her when she needed help more than ever.

This weekend was like any other. We decided it was the perfect weekend to spend in Orlando hanging out at Disney with the kids. We’ve got four – kids, that is. And we’ve been annual passholders for about 8 years, since our oldest child was almost 1. We don’t live far from the parks, it’s easy for us to spend a couple of hours on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon, or even a weekend having fun.

The kids are familiar with the park. They know their way around like the back of their hands. They know where everything is, how fast passes work, where to go for the best this or that, and the best places to go when it’s raining, when it’s hot, when it’s cold, or to see the parades or shows. They’ve only been a couple million times, that’s all.

But this weekend was not like any other weekend. This weekend was our worst nightmare come true. We had all four kids (Addison is 9, Ava is 6, and Carter and Charlotte are 3) Saturday at the park. It was meant to be a weekend of fun in the sun, relaxation, and some great meals at a few of our favorite places. We slept in on Saturday morning, relaxed over some delicious Starbucks, and ended up at Disney before noon.

We had fast passes, we did our favorite rides, we bought new toys and new hats, and we stopped for massive ice cream cones, bowls, cookies, and dishes at the Ice Cream Shoppe on Mainstreet for a break. Just before we were leaving Magic Kingdom to go to dinner, Addison decided she finally knew which toy she wanted, so I took her into the shop on Main Street and the restroom while Craig took the twins in the double stroller and Ava to the Christmas tree to wait for us.

We weren’t separated 3 minutes when my watch began vibrating on my wrist and I saw it was Craig calling. He wouldn’t call me from the same street at Disney 3 minute after we separated and 3 minutes before we’d be back together unless it was urgent – a text is so much easier.

I knew. I knew the second I saw his name something was wrong, and I couldn’t find my phone in my bag fast enough. I answered, and the fear, panic, and terror in his voice made my heart stop.

“I can’t find Ava. She’s gone,” is all he said.

I grabbed Addison by the arm and ran out of the store without a word – I didn’t even know if she had anything in her hands or if I had all our belongings or what. I just needed to get out of the store. We ran down Mainstreet looking for her. Black leggings. Back and grey Minnie mouse shirt. Black and silver Michael Kors flip flops. Bright pink Hello Kitty fedora.

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Nothing. No sign of her. Mainstreet was packed. I had Addison by the arm, and we were running. I was pushing people, breaking up their groups, crying. Terrified. I spotted Craig by the tree running around with the double stroller calling Ava’s name.

He’d told her they were going to stop by the tree to wait for mommy when the twins started bickering, and he bent down to talk to them. Ava – we later learned – was so distracted by the tree that she said “Okay,” to Craig without hearing anything he said and she kept watching. Craig, taking her “Okay” for confirmation she knew the plan, didn’t even notice she kept walking when he was breaking up the fight between the babies.

She was gone. We were both hysterical.

We separated as he stayed by the tree to look in case she came back and I went to find a cast member. Find a cast member. Find a Disney cast member and tell them she’s missing. Describe her. Give her name. They have a system, they have protocol. They know what to do. They know how to handle this. Find a cast member.

As I’m running frantically trying to find a cast member, which is usually the easiest thing you can do at Disney, I realize that it was some sort of big club weekend in which thousands of people were all dressed in Disney ensembles similar to the dancers, the cast members, and other Disney employees. It was near impossible to find someone who actually worked there rather than someone who merely looked like a cast member.

That’s when I ran into a store to get a cast member from behind a counter. And that’s when my phone rang. My darling husband Craig Raiford on the screen. I answered. “I have her,” is all he said, and I took off running.

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By the tree, I saw my husband in his orange and blue Florida Gator polo shirt on the ground with Ava in his arms. They were both crying. I have never hugged a child that hard in my life. She said she was so scared. Based on how scared I was, I can’t even imagine how scared she was.

According to Ava, our sweet six-year-old, she just kept looking at the tree on Mainstreet and didn’t know daddy stopped. By the time she realized he wasn’t with her anymore, she said there were so many people and she’s so small she couldn’t see anything, so she stopped a man and told him she was lost.

We’ve always told our kids – a million and one times – what to do if they are ever separated from us. Find an employee of wherever we are, find a person with a lot of kids who seem happy. Find a police officer, or a medic, or a fireman, or a security guard. Tell them you’re lost, and tell them what we look like, where we were, and our names.

And she did. She found a man in a Florida State Seminoles shirt – she recognized the logo from the games we watched – and she asked him for help. And then he told us the rest. He told us that Ava was so impressive and brave. She was crying, but she told him she couldn’t find her daddy, and then she told him that he’s wearing an orange and blue Gator shirt, and that he had her twin babies with him in their red stroller. And then he took her to find the nearest cast member for help.

We are so proud of our girl. Six-years-old, and aside from some tears, she was calm, stoic, and handled herself like a champ. She handled herself so well, in fact, two grown men were impressed and couldn’t resist telling us we should be proud of her.

The grace of God was with us on Saturday, because another man saw the entire thing unfold when Ava stopped FSU to ask for help. He, wearing a Bama shirt, decided to follow to find a cast member. He didn’t say it out loud, but my take is that he followed because a little girl was lost from her family and asked a strange man for help and he wanted to be sure that strange man would, in fact, help her. That’s when FSU spotted a cast member, explained the story, and left Ava with the cast member to go to Guest Services. It’s also the moment he decided to look around and spotted a man with an orange and blue Gator polo and twins in a red stroller looking a little worse for the wear. He approached Craig and asked him if he was missing his little girl and when Craig said he was, he pointed to the cast member and to Ava.

And that’s when FSU told Craig he had one smart, brave little girl. She told him exactly was Craig was wearing, what color the stroller was, what the babies were wearing; everything. And that’s when Bama came up and told Craig he witnessed the entire thing, and Ava did everything right. She did it all right.

She did everything right. And because of that, we had her back in under 7 minutes. It was the longest 7 minutes of our lives, and I cannot even begin to describe the kind of fear we felt in that moment. Terror doesn’t even begin to cover it.

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare come to life.

But our girl remembered all the conversations we had with her about handling a situation just like this. Conversations I was certain she never listened to. Conversations I had to pry a response out of her following. Conversations she seemed to be more interested in her coloring, the scenery, the floor, the sky, being anywhere else but talking to us. She heard every word.

And that’s why I want to take a moment to tell you to talk to your kids. Talk to them about how to handle situations you never think you might experience. We are darn good parents. Our eyes are on our kids – and we would have put money on the fact we’d never lose a child in public. But we did. We did.

And I want to take another moment to thank the two men who helped our Ava. The two men who proved there are good people in the world even when the media wants us to believe otherwise. Two men in college football shirts who weren’t at home watching the game but at Disney with their families making memories and probably wishing there was a TV or two anywhere in the Magic Kingdom.

Thank you. I don’t know your names. I don’t know who you are. I never even saw your faces. You spoke to my husband while I was running around looking for our daughter, and you kept her safe. You are good people, and I am forever thankful to you both. Thank you for being at Disney. Thank you for helping our girl. Thank you for seeing a little girl with tears in her eyes and doing whatever it took to help her find her family.

Thank you. And thank God for putting those two men where they were that day so that our girl would be all right. Thank you. And talk to your kids. And by the witness who follows in a situation like this to be sure that help is really what’s being offered.

And Happy Thanksgiving week. Hug a little tighter this week. It’s good for your soul.

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