WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - She's a sister, a mother of five, a wife, a friend, a two-time cancer survivor and an advocate for thousands of missing, murdered and kidnapped people. For two decades Monica Caison has committed her life to the CUE Center for Missing Persons. This, is her story.
Monica grew up in one of the rougher neighborhoods in Florida. The bright-eyed, blonde little girl was a "Brownie" in the Girl Scouts. Her tenure was short - after just a year and a half she was kicked out for withholding her dues to buy a milkshake. Her efforts were replaced with an enterprise – a local landscaping business.
Monica's siblings include five brothers and five sisters, living together in an area with a fair share of young families and crime.
"No matter what you do, you do it with 110 percent," Monica reflected on her childhood. "When I was bad kid - I was 110 percent!"
She's largely vague about what being a "bad kid" meant, but it's fair to say the lessons she learned surviving on the streets and living from one group home to another, would all later help her understand the minds of criminals, runaways and thousands of other people who simply vanished.
A young mother of three was the victim of the first missing persons case Monica would be exposed to. Melinda was a friend's older sister and she disappeared when Monica was about 13 years old.
As a teen, Monica began asking around town for information and interviewing neighbors. Unknowingly, she was finding the path for her future.
It took another 28 years and thousands of missing people in between, but Monica eventually found her friend.
With the help of Melinda's mother Joan, the two had Melinda's case brought up-to-date after it had long been forgotten.
They pushed police to collect new DNA and enter it into the nationwide system called CODIS.
Monica worked to have an age progression image created and generate media coverage with large signs and a candlelight service.
A detective saw the posters and told Monica about a cold case that she too was working on. When they put their respective DNA into CODIS, a match was made and Melinda's case was solved.
"None of these cases were an inspiration," Monica pointed out. "It wasn't like 'Oh I'm going to grow up and this is what I'm going to do!' Hell, I figured I'd end up in a ditch somewhere."
The early exposure to how communities, families and law enforcement handled a missing person's case forever changed Monica.
She didn't know it as a teenager, but in years to come she would be working side-by-side with some of the detectives that were pulling her off the streets.
"There's always a pre-judgement, 'Well this person was a gang-banger or this person was a prostitute,'" Monica remarked. "Like they're not as important. It always bothers me because if I would have gone missing when I was young - with all the things I did as a child - then I would have became one of those people that were spoke about like that. And look what I've accomplished."
If there wasn't proof, you might not believe that Monica Caison actually had her heart set on stardom in her late teens and twenties.
"I'm a drummer. Growing up, I really wanted to be a rock star," Monica recounted.
So how did a musician with a far from clean record and without any law enforcement training end up working side-by-side with detectives while gaining the trust of strangers and suffering families?
First, she had to get to Wilmington.
The trip from Florida was made possible via hitchhiking. Her purpose – extract her younger siblings from the abusive home they had been living in and find them a safe haven.
The small beach city made quite an impression.
"Everybody is wavin' at ya and I was like 'Jesus Christ did you tell everybody we were in town?'" Monica laughed. "Where I grew up if somebody stops to offer you a ride and you're walking - it's a serial killer. Here? They actually want to give you a ride!"
Monica intended to make a roundtrip back to Florida. She would have headed straight across the bridge had she not stopped for a cigarette, and had her future husband – a quiet country boy – not walked out to light it.
"He was scared of me," Monica remembered.
The two were good friends but it was hardly love at first sight.
"One day we were joking around and I said, 'If I ever get married, I will marry you,'" she recalled. "But I am NOT wearing a dress!"
They married and raised five children together, who she credits with turning a career runaway into a dedicated local volunteer.
Monica won several awards for her community involvement well before she established the CUE Center.
One project involved local students and allowed participants to pick a community topic. Monica chose missing children, for no reason in particular. Her student group blew everyone away with the awareness event that they planned.
"I was done! That was my commitment to missing children and I was done," she said.
But Karen Brown, the head of the Non-Profit for Public Awareness, had other plans for Monica. In her eyes, this was just the beginning.
Brown wasted no time figuring out a way for Monica to turn her side project into a full-blown organization. A plan that was vastly different from the one Monica had in mind.
"She shows up at my house and she has these papers and she says, 'Look I've already made up these papers I'm dissolving my non-profit, what do you want to name your group?'" she said. "And I'm like, 'This ---- woman!'"
Brown handed Monica her first donation - $76.00. That was all that was left after Brown dissolved her program.
Brown saw in Monica what she had yet to see in herself – a leader. Still, Monica wasn't sold.
"I was getting angry and I said, 'It would take a community and one large effort that would have to unite in one big effort to ever find a missing kid and it's just not happening!' And she said 'That's it! CUE! Community United Effort!'"
That's how the CUE Center was created.
Her organization relies heavily on hundreds of volunteers who dedicate their time, skills and resources to making searches successful. CUE is entirely donor-funded.
In the early years, while still raising her children, Monica funded CUE through pageant hair and costume design.
"She's not a talker, she's a doer," Penny Carr Britton explained. "She does what she says she's going to do."
Britton is the mother of Peggy, a young woman who vanished in 1998. Peggy had been shopping on Oleander Drive when two men kidnapped her, drove her out to Bladen County and murdered her.
Britton flew from Ohio to Wilmington to help find her daughter. Being a stranger in town, Britton had a hard time gathering information from police and detectives. They told her that Peggy had likely "run away from life" and was on a beach in Florida.
That's when Britton found a friend and an advocate in Monica Caison.
"I didn't doubt one minute that because she didn't have a badge that she didn't know what she was doing or that she couldn't help me," said Penny. "She knew exactly what to do, it was amazing!"
With the help of volunteers and local law enforcement, Monica and her team found Peggy's remains several months after she disappeared. It became the landmark case for CUE, propelling the organization into what it is today.
In fact, it was Peggy who penned the words which would become the foundation for CUE, in her last poem:
"Let's take time to grow, and be hopeful together…
…our cause will be shown."
"Living on the street as a kid, being a young mother, embracing my husband and learning about the trust and the bond and being a parent, I think you bring all of that to the plate when somebody's missing," Monica noted. "I think I have a lot to pull from."
Spend time with her in the field, you'll quickly learn that Monica is a force to be reckoned with. Ask the families who she's helped, and you'll hear about an entirely different side of Monica Caison.
"She was a comfort," said Penny Carr Britton. "She's like this angel that drops down."
Her office walls are covered by the photos of missing teens who she's searched for. Some have been found, others remain missing.
"When people open up a newspaper and they see a missing person they're like 'Oh how sad, OK honey did you get the dry cleaner?'" Monica remarked. "To me it's like, there's a funeral constantly going by - it's missing and murdered kids. I don't look at them as case numbers, I can look at a picture and tell you their whole story, and I don't ever want to be so large that I lose that. I want to be able to sit with a mother whose just lost everything. I want to try to change the judgment of young people because they are our future and it's our responsibility as adults to step in their path. I had someone step into mine and that's why I'm here today."
It can be mind boggling to hear some of Monica's search stories - how she figured out the most obscure of cases from the tiniest of details. Press her on how she connects the dots and Monica won't reference any specialized training, technology or even her years of experience. Instead, she'll promptly tell you her most reliable source, is her faith.
"I think God is important," Monica stated. "I've seen true miracles in my private life and in my life with CUE that I know are definitely what I call 'God Moments.'"
Before every search there is a prayer for guidance, to help find the treasure that's been lost.
"She has a gift," said Britton. "God put her here on this Earth to help people and to sustain families through this horrific journey."
More than 9,000 families have counted on CUE for support and answers, and it seems every day the need grows.
Monica's work has gotten the attention of the Discovery Channel's Last Seen Alive series. Some of their video has been featured in this story.
Her current endeavor is the Safe and Found children's coloring book. The activity is a safety tool for school children to help illustrate what to expect if ever lost.
The public is invited to a cake decorating contest and fundraiser September 20 for the CUE Center. The Center is entirely donor supported. To find out more head to: http://www.ncmissingpersons.org/