While the search for 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo didn’t return with the results his family had been hoping for, the older brother of the deceased autistic teen, Danny Oquendo, recently penned a heartfelt letter thanking New Yorkers for their support in the search to bring Avonte home.
“New York City; the City of Dreams. With a reputation for being the hardest place on Earth to succeed, it is frequently described as a cold, unforgiving, cut-throat Metropolis. New Yorkers are labeled as rude, impatient, aggressive, and unsympathetic. I’m writing to tell you that this reputation the rest of the world assumes is far from the truth,” Oquendo expressed in an open letter for Autism Speaks titled “A City Behind Us”.
“Although the daily New York experience may feel like one of isolation amongst crowds, any true New Yorker will tell you that when it matters most, this city comes together in larger numbers than any other community on the planet as proven after the tragedy of 9/11. This tendency for New Yorkers to come together also held true during the city-wide search for my younger brother, Avonte Oquendo.”
His letter continues:
“Avonte went missing last October from his school in Long Island City, New York. While transitioning between classes in the middle of the school day, my brother Avonte, a non-verbal 14-year-old boy who suffered from a developmental disorder called autism, was able to run out of the building undetected. Generally speaking, children that suffer from autism have issues in brain development that are often characterized by difficulties in communication (both verbal and non-verbal), repetitive behaviors, and problems with social interaction. They are also known to be runners and often flee from authority, teachers, friends, and even family – a behavior that makes it imperative that some be supervised 24 hours a day. For this reason, special needs staff, both professional and paraprofessional are required to supervise them at all times.
While the details of the events that transpired are not 100% known, on the particular day that Avonte went missing, for whatever the reason, Avonte was not supervised. His ability to put a smile on the faces of those around him was only rivaled by his tendency to run – and run he did. He sprinted straight out of one of the unlocked exit doors of the school only to be spotted by a surveillance camera and a security guard. The guard claims to have told him to stop, unaware that Avonte did not have the ability to communicate verbally. On any other day it might have been safe to assume this was just an unruly teen attempting to play hooky from school. This turned out to be an assumption that will haunt my family for decades to come.
Our biggest fear was escalating. Picture in your mind having a loved one who does not possess the ability to communicate effectively. Now imagine this loved one lost in the biggest city in the world, alone, cold, hungry, afraid or worse. How you’re feeling right now is just a fraction of the pain we endured for the months following Avonte’s disappearance. Not knowing whether we would see our beloved Avonte again ate away our souls. Every minute we spent in the dark about his whereabouts felt like years of torture. With our backs against the wall we knew we could not sit back and do nothing in hopes that my brother would eventually be found by the New York Police Department. We recognized that we had to be proactive and do everything within our power to find him.
Overcome with grief and hopelessness, there was only one place we could turn to for help, the people of New York City. While Avonte’s mother and the family attorney led the media campaign to spread awareness about his disappearance, I opted to utilize my skillset and gather volunteers that could personally help with the search here in New York. In an attempt to reach out to as many people as possible, I asked the social media-sphere for help. I took our story to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, pleading for the community to join my family at Avonte’s Long Island City school where he was last seen on that heartbreaking October day. The first few days following his disappearance were very grim. We did not sleep, we barely ate and we felt we had nowhere to turn. With only a small number of volunteers there was no way we could possibly search the entire city
What happened next was one of the most inspiring events to ever occur in my lifetime. As word spread through social networks thanks to shared posts and retweets we began to see massive groups of volunteers coming from every corner of the tri-state area just to help us find our beloved Avonte. Word of his disappearance spread like wildfire and before we knew it there were masses of sympathetic volunteers ready to do anything in their power to aid us in our search. We went from a small family searching night and day for our loved one to a large operation with thousands of volunteers ready and willing to help in every possible way.”
Read Danny’s full letter here.