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Jennifer Sands: The Face on the Milk Carton

Jennifer Sands was the name of the missing girl featured in the 1995 movie, The Face on the Milk Carton. You may recall, Kellie Martin had the starring role.

Although she was a fictitious character created by writer Caroline B. Cooney, there is nothing fictitious about the 13 Jennifers the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has listed in their national database.

Milk Carton Program
The Missing Children Milk Carton Program was also not fictitious. It was started in the mid-80s when the National Child Safety Council coordinated the public awareness effort with more than 700 dairies.

I remember staring at Johnny Gosch‘s picture over many a breakfast. He’s the only face I really remember from the milk cartons. The campaign ended in the late 1980s, but became a cultural touchstone for Generation X.

The first time I heard about a child going missing I was about 8 or 9-years-old. A local TV reporter from Odessa, Texas, interrupted an episode of The Love Boat with a news report about a 10-year-old girl that had been abducted from some dirt road in the middle of West Texas.

I pretty much never slept the same after that. A few years later, while traveling from Texas to Kansas on an Oklahoma Turnpike, a toll booth employee handed my father a flyer of two girls who went missing from the Oklahoma State Fair. It was 1981 and the girls were 13-years-old, the same age as me.

Generation X Influences

Historians, sociologists, and marketers, etc., assign collective personas to every generation. When writing or talking about Generation X, they always cite the following influences: AIDS, MTV, The Cold War, Space Shuttle Challenger, divorce, latchkey kids, and missing children on milk cartons.

I can imagine no greater agony on earth than the loss of a child. But, to have a child go missing for 10, 20, 30 years or more and never know what happened to him or her is a hell like no other. Here is a Jennifer that’s been missing since 1984. Like me, she was born in 1967. She told her mother she was going on a bike ride and nobody ever heard from her again.

Jennifer Chronicles

This blog post is part of a year-long project, The Jennifer Chronicles. It’s an effort to tell the story of Generation X through anecdotes about women named Jennifer. It was the #1 girls name in America from 1970 to 1984. It’s also my name. Will you follow along and tell all your Jennifer friends about it?

Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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  1. Jennifer

    Lisa – Thanks for leaving a note. This is so tragic and gut-wrenching. I just Googled the story. Her poor parents. Anything I’d say would sound like a platitude. Nobody should ever have to go through this and it does take a toll on the community at large. Many, many years ago, a little girl went missing three blocks from my house. They never found her, but the prime suspect hung himself. I have read many times that abduction is rare, but I’m still going to play it as safe as I can. I’m definitely not like that free-ranging blogging mom – Lenore?? I think that’s her name. Her kids rides the NY subway alone or something like that. RIP Jessica.

  2. Lisa C

    I was thinking about this a few months ago when a 10-year-old girl went missing in our community. We got a reverse-911 call on Friday night saying she hadn’t been seen since she’d left to walk to school that morning. Tons of people in the neighborhood started showing up to ask how they could help. The police were surprised because they usually take care of this stuff on their own, but quickly decided to make use of it. They set up a command center and hundreds of volunteers showed up to do “line walks” through open space in the area, searching for her backpack, boots, anything. Many of the volunteers were retired military and other first responders; many others like myself were Gen-X parents. I suspect we were there because of the kids on the milk cartons.

    At the command center, the tension was palatable. Everyone looked slightly sick that a girl had gone missing at all, but nevertheless in the days that followed there was also a sense of optimism that maybe, just maybe, with so many people searching and tweeting and posting pictures on Facebook and printing out her missing poster on our own printers and plastering them everywhere, that maybe it would turn out ok.

    Unfortunately, she didn’t come home. The news continued to unfold with increasing horror by the day. (Search for “Jessica Ridgeway.”) It’s rocked our world. Most of us have been supportive of kids walking to school once they get to be 10 or 11: our neighborhood is perfectly safe. And now…. Statistically, stranger kidnappings are rare and actually less common than in the ’70s and ’80s, but I can’t quite get past the fact that it happened 2 miles away from my house. Generational trauma strikes again.


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