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Free Bird Project to help families with missing loved ones

Click to play video: '2 Alberta families launch non-profit to help those with missing loved ones'
2 Alberta families launch non-profit to help those with missing loved ones
WATCH ABOVE: Two Alberta families whose loved ones went missing are trying to pay it forward after strangers helped them in their searches. As Sarah Ryan explains, their project aims to support families who find themselves in similar spots. – Jan 17, 2021

Two Edmonton-area families whose loved ones went missing have joined forces in hopes of helping other families deal with their grief, and their search efforts.

Tammy Neron’s 28-year-old brother, Dominic Neron, disappeared while flying from Penticton, B.C., to Edmonton with his girlfriend Ashley Bourgeault in November 2017.

Neron was a pilot and the plane he was flying was tracked to an area just north of Revelstoke, B.C., before the signal was lost.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre search was officially called off after nine days.

READ MORE: Family of missing Alberta couple suspends search due to winter weather

“Just due to the risk and likelihood of finding them alive, the search was ended. Then it was up to our family to pick up the pieces,” Tammy said.

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But Dominic and Ashley’s families kept hope alive and searched relentlessly, often with the help of total strangers. In September 2018, 10 months later, they successfully found the plane and their loved ones’ bodies.

Dominic Neron, disappeared while flying from Penticton, B.C., to Edmonton with his girlfriend Ashley Bourgeault in 2017. Supplied

“We had little to no resources,” Tammy said. “We didn’t know where to go.

“Life doesn’t really prepare you for these things. It was a lot to deal with on top of grieving and missing my brother.”

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Heather Shtuka went through a similar experience after her 20-year-old son Ryan Shtuka never made it home from a park at Sun Peaks Ski Resort in B.C. in February 2018.

“It will be three years this February — of searching for our son. And we still haven’t found him,” she said.

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Ryan Shtuka never made it home from a park at Sun Peaks Ski Resort in B.C. in February 2018. Supplied

“To think that your child is just going to be left there — like trash — to have somebody stumble over them — a hunter, a hiker — somebody to stumble over them when the snow melts. It was unfathomable to me.”

READ MORE: Ryan Shtuka honoured 1 year after going missing at B.C. ski resort

Ryan’s mom and dad immediately drove the 9.5 hours to Sun Peaks when they learned their son didn’t show up for work.

“We need to get into search mode. We need to think logically,” Heather said.

But that was easier said than done in their desperation.

“We were blindly searching — had no idea. We were sending people out — not doing grid search, not blitzing an area,” Heather explained.

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“We learned so much in the first three weeks about what we were doing right, and what we were doing not so right.”

Tammy and Heather eventually connected, as they searched for their loved ones who were lost just a few months apart.

Together with Dominic’s sister-in-law, Kate Sinclair, and Heather’s friend Nicole Vogel, they run The Free Bird Project, a non-profit designed to help other families with missing loved ones navigate the journey.

Their goal is to provide hope, support and resources to families in need.

“It was just so clear that with this book of information from the past 10 months — that we could pay it forward,” Tammy said. “Also, because there were so many searchers that gave so much to us, expecting nothing in return.”

The group has experience doing things like co-ordinating command centres and leveraging social media campaigns.

“To be able to support families that are going through this, so that they can make reasonable decisions that aren’t just based on emotion,” Heather said.

“To hear the words, ‘I’ve been through this, I understand what you’re going through, I’m here for you — it does a lot,” Tammy said.

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The families are hopeful The Free Bird Project will continue to grow, amassing more volunteers, sponsors and donations so they can expand their reach outside of the Edmonton area.

Tammy explained there’s lots of ways people can get involved.

“It starts with as much as printing off 50 missing posters or donating food for the searchers, or having items we could start an auction with,” she said.

For both women, the project gives them purpose, and is a way of paying tribute to their loved ones.

“I don’t want him (Ryan) to just be Feb. 17, this for me is a way to create a legacy out of what has come from this tragedy,” Heather said.

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