Hundreds of residents in Gold Hill responded after a call for help was sent out Monday
GOLD HILL — When he got an automated phone call Monday afternoon about a missing child just a few blocks from his Hays Street home, Jay England Sr. at first thought the phone call was "unusual."
Then he recalled a time in the 1960s when neighbors banded together to find a missing child. His thoughts also shifted to his grandchildren, who play in his front yard, fenced specifically to keep them safe. That focused his attention on the message.
"It just said that the little girl was missing and she was wearing all pink," he said.
The call alerted residents to be on the lookout for a 7-year-old autistic girl named Rowan who had wandered away from a family member's Sixth Street home near Hanby Middle School Monday at about 5 p.m.
They did more than just look out for her. Neighbors, friends and strangers came out of their homes and took to the streets, the fields and the nearby hills to join in the search.
Despite an artificial joint in his leg, England joined several hundred community members, sheriff's deputies and passersby in cars and on foot, some with dogs.
The initial reports placed Rowan near Patrick Elementary School, but search crews also were scouring the hills above the small town.
"I walked around a little — as much as I could, trying to help out," England said. "There were a lot of people out looking. This is a good neighborhood around here."
A good neighborhood indeed, said Sarah Hampson, Rowan's aunt. Hampson said Rowan and her grandmother, whom the girl lives with in Ashland, had visited for lunch, as they do frequently.
"It was really great for everyone to come help find her," she said. "I was really impressed. At first we were running around ourselves and we were getting worried."
Hampson described Rowan as very athletic: "She can run three miles without getting tired."
"We were having lunch," Hampson said, "and we turned our back for three minutes and she was gone."
Jackson County Undersheriff Rod Countryman — a former police chief of Gold Hill — found Rowan shortly before 8 p.m. in a wooded area on a steep hill east of Gold Hill. After tracking dogs picked up the girl's scent and began heading uphill, Countryman drove his four-wheel-drive vehicle up a steep road and found the girl safe at the top.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters credited the community's help in making phone calls and aiding in the search, and noted the value of a national automated system, called "A Child is Missing Alert" (www.achildismissing.org). That system placed the call England and hundreds of other Gold Hill residents received Monday.
"We had used the Child is Missing program successfully before," Winters said. "The computer system will call every listed phone number within a certain geographic area. It asks everyone to check their yard and look around. It worked well for another case."
Former Mayor Gus Wolf, who took his two dogs out to help in the search, said he was touched by the community's response to the missing girl.
"Everybody I knew was out looking for her. It was really amazing," said Wolf.
"I was out with my two dogs up above Hanby. Really, the whole town was out looking."
Ray's Food Place manager Angela Moss said a constant flow of residents and law enforcement officers trickled into her store Monday evening.
"There were a lot of people on the streets last night," said Moss, who knows Rowan. "She's a regular here. They come in and get cookies and suckers. I was hoping if she was out wandering around, she'd see Ray's and feel like it was something familiar."
Moss said she worried as the sun fell behind the hills Monday, fearful the girl would face cold temperatures or even encounter a cougar, which is not uncommon in the rural area.
"It tore me up pretty bad to know one of our kids was missing," she said. "I am pretty involved in the community so it's like my family out here. In a small town, everybody should pull together, especially in today's times."
England said little had changed about how he felt about his hometown after Monday's big search.
"I've been here since '61 and everybody watches out for each other," he said. "There are good people in Gold Hill. This is a good little town."