“I don’t think there’s ever a day that isn’t a struggle,” Paula Bali, Mekayla’s mother, said. “You know Mekayla is 19 now, she’s an adult, (and) it’s shocking at how quickly the time has gone by.”
Throughout the years, that unspeakable pain, grief, anger, and confusion only grew for the Bali family, who know as little now as they did the day she disappeared.
“They say time heals all wounds, it doesn’t heal a missing person’s wounds, your heart is still shattered,” Rhonda Bali, Mekayla’s aunt, said.
“You learn to put a face on where you’re not bawling with everybody, but you’re so shattered inside that when you get up in the morning your first thought is…. You just don’t want to get up, you don’t want to move. There’s nothing to live for anymore. Your ray of sunshine is gone, and you have to try to pretend that you can go on.”
“You have to force yourself to live, what you might call living. It’s not living, it’s a suffer,” she added.
Memories of Mekayla
Ever since April 2016, the only thing left for the family has been photos and memories. When asked what type of girl Mekayla is, everyone has a similar answer. Paula describes her as an average teenager, who loved music and loved to read.
“Probably one of the most interesting things about Mekayla is she’s so average. Very sweet, shy, introverted,” Paula said. “Very dedicated to her family and certainly loved her siblings, she has a younger brother and sister who are incredibly important to her. She was musical and she just got into drama in high school, so music was kind of a way for her to step out of her shyness. But yeah, really a very typical girl.”
Rhonda Bali says Mekayla did a thoughtful gesture her for her birthday, just before she vanished.
”She wanted to surprise me, so she got an accordion she learned how to play Happy Birthday on the accordion,” Rhonda said. “She never played it before but learned how to play Happy Birthday to me as one of my surprise presents. That’s just the kind of girl that she was.”
Fond memories like those are something the family holds near and dear. Time and tears go by, and the agony continues to grow, and questions swirl about the events leading up to her disappearance.
“It’s one of those situations where you never think that it will be three years and you still don’t know anything,” Paula said.
April 12, 2016
April 12, 2016, started as another ordinary day in the Bali household.
“That morning, nothing was out of sorts in our home. It was an absolutely average day,” Paula recalled. “So we get up, Mekayla and I get up around the same time, get ready, we often do our hair and makeup in the bathroom together, we just share about our day and chit chat and maybe listen to some tunes and grab some breakfast… There’s just nothing in my mind that stands out as it being different than any other day.”
What started as an ordinary day ended in their worst nightmare.
When Mekayla’s grandmother went to pick her up from Sacred Heart High School at the end of the day to take her to her music lesson, Mekayla was nowhere to be found.
Paula knew something was wrong when her mother showed up at her workplace.
“My mom has never come to my workplace. So I knew something was wrong,” she said.
What Paula initially thought could have been some form of misunderstanding quickly escalated into a panicked situation.
“To be frankly honest, I was literally running around the school looking under school buses screaming her name. It was very traumatic,” she said.
“No answer on her phone, I am calling and texting and trying not to be completely frantic.”
Paula says she realized Mekayla wasn’t making her own decisions when she didn’t take money from the emergency slush fund Paula has in the house.
“As a single mom, I always have a slush fund in the house, a cash fund, and Mekayla had access to that,” she said. “I remember going down the stairs thinking that if she ran away, that money is going to be gone, and it was all there. And I think that was one of the pivotal points in my life where you realize that this wasn’t a teenager doing something senseless.”
Later that evening, the devastation and realization sunk in. The family made a police report, and their lives were forever changed.
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“It was the most devastating day of my life. I’ve never known anything to be as devastating as that,” Rhonda said.
“I was in school and I couldn’t believe it,” Madison said. “I was messaging her and messaging her, not believing any of this was happening. It was hard.”
“She was like another sister to me, she was a part of my family I was a part of hers,” she added.
Piecing together a puzzling path
What would follow were years of searching and public pleas for information in finding Mekayla.
On the day of her disappearance, Mekayla went to school, but never attended class.
She left Sacred Heart High School and was spotted on surveillance footage in different areas around Yorkton.
According to RCMP reports, Mekayla left school around 8:24 a.m. and is seen on surveillance footage at a TD Bank at 8:51 a.m. She withdrew $55 before leaving the bank.
She is next seen at Terry’s Pawn and Bargain around 9 a.m. RCMP reports say she tried to pawn two rings but the store owner did not take the rings.
At 9:10 a.m., she goes to the Yorkton east Tim Horton’s restaurant, purchases a coffee and sits down. She is alone and using her phone, occasionally glancing at the doors. Around 9:17 a.m., she got up and walked out of the restaurant, before stopping and walking back in through the restaurant and then back outside again.
She returns to the same Tim Horton’s restaurant around 9:49 a.m. She appears to be making a call on her phone when she walked back into the restaurant, but RCMP say there were no calls made to or from her phone on that day.
RCMP say at one point Mekayla texted a friend saying “Hey I need help,” but followed it up a short time later with, “nevermind. I figured it out.”
She walks out the north doors of the Tim Horton’s around 10:25 a.m., before walking back into the restaurant two minutes later and returns to the same booth. She appears to be speaking with someone on her phone, but again, no noted calls were made to or from her phone on that day.
At 10:43 a.m. she speaks with an older lady sitting at a table near her booth. RCMP say that Mekayla asked the woman to help her rent a hotel room, but the woman declined to do so. Mekayla leaves the restaurant around 10:44 a.m.
Video surveillance shows her walking westbound down Broadway Street, before returning to Sacred Heart High School at 11:59 a.m. RCMP reports say she spoke to two other students at the school and said she was going to take a bus for a vacation in Regina. She leaves the school again at 12:02 p.m. and walks eastbound on Gladstone Avenue.
RCMP reports also say she went to the Yorkton Bus Depot between 10 a.m. and noon and inquired about a bus leaving to Regina. She purchased poutine in the bus station restaurant. She was last seen at the Yorkton Bus Depot between 1 p.m. and 1:45 p.m., but it was determined she never purchased a bus ticket.
That is where her puzzling path ends.
Since then, Mekayla has left no digital footprint; RCMP say her phone was shut off at 6:51 a.m. the following day. Police also say they have received tips that a message on one of her social media accounts appeared to have been opened months later, but officers have not confirmed why the message was marked as read or if someone has actually viewed it.
Three years gone
On each anniversary of her disappearance, the family holds a candlelit vigil in Yorkton.
But still more than three years and hundreds of tips later, they know as little now as they did then.
The amount of unanswered questions has led to exasperation. Paula has been vocal about her frustrations with the authorities handling her case, as well as different theories and online speculation over Mekayla’s disappearance.
Mekayla’s case became even more complex when there was an alleged sighting of Mekayla in Washington state, which got international authorities involved. But so far, the tips haven’t pointed to her whereabouts.
Paula also says there need to be more supports available for families of missing persons.
“There’s no support for something like that with missing families, and I know from personal experience, many missing families don’t survive this,” Paula said. “Early deaths, suicides, addictions – They’re commonplace among missing families.”
For Paula, one of the most difficult parts of this tragic disappearance is the impact it’s had on Mekayla’s siblings.
“As much as it hurts to lose one child, I don’t want to lose three,” Paula said.
“She is still part of our family but yet isn’t. We still have troubles eating at the dining room table with a missing person, so we don’t.”
“We were like sleeping on the living room floor when this first happened because I was terrified. What do I do with these kids? Are they safe in our own home? Are they safe at school?”
Paula says she still checks on her children at school every day, and they have been going to counselling.
“I think their whole outlook on life has been severely damaged. The worst case scenario happened. So their expectations in life are that terrible things happen and they’re normal.”
“My youngest daughter writes notes to Mekayla. So she takes them down to Mekayla’s room and she puts them on her bed or she puts them on her dresser. You literally pull the dresser open and it pops full of these little notes,” Paula said. “And she makes her Christmas presents and says ‘this is for you’. And I think it’s hard for her because she’s beginning to forget her a little bit.”
Gift of hope
Mekayla’s disappearance shook the normally quiet community of Yorkton, who have rallied around the family since day one.
Currently, a $50,000 reward is out for her safe return, with an anonymous donor recently stepping up to donate $25,000 to the cause.
Something Paula calls a ‘gift of hope’.
“I have said before it takes a village to raise a child it might take a country to find one, and that seems to be the case,” she said.
It’s that type of support that gives the family faith.
“Every single day since she has been gone, I’ve written her at least one letter a day. I’ve emailed her at least once a day, because I believe that she is alive and she will be back,” Rhonda said. “And I don’t want her to feel like we didn’t try or we forgot about her or something like that. So every day I tell her how much we love her, how much we miss her, what we did, what our family did.”
The family continues to hold out hope that one day the annual vigil will become a welcome home party.
“I pray that she gets to see news and that she gets to see this, and I would tell her how much I love her, how much I miss her, how much I can’t wait for her to come back home,” Rhonda added.
“And to fight for all that you can to make it back home. Fight. I know she has it in her. I know that she’s a fighter at heart. She’s determined, she’s strong, she’s such a wonderful person, and I can’t wait till I can see her again.”
So the Bali family has vowed to never stop searching for their loved one.
“In my heart, I want to believe that she is fine, that she is safe, and that a safe return is possible,” Paula said. “And until I know otherwise, I will continue to believe that.”