After 18 years of wishing for Jaycee Dugard to be found unharmed, her family says it now wants the same for families of children who remain missing.
“To hug that girl after 18 years and touch her hair and run my fingers down her back and separating the strands of hair, it was just the best feeling in the world,” Jaycee’s aunt, Tina Dugard, tells PEOPLE.
“I wish that for every parent out there who has lost a child,” she adds tearfully. “I truly with all my heart wish they have the same joy that I have experienced and that my family has experienced. I want to hold out hope for everybody’s babies now.”
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Dugard, 42, her sister Terry Probyn (Jaycee’s mother) and Terry’s daughter Shayna, 19, flew to Northern California Aug. 27 to reunite with Jaycee, nearly two decades after she was abducted at age 11 as she walked to a school bus stop near her South Lake Tahoe home. Her alleged abductors, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, have pleaded not guilty and are in jail awaiting trial.
Phillip Garrido, a convicted rapist, reportedly fathered Jaycee’s two daughters, Starlit, 15, and Angel, 11, who are now safe with Jaycee and Terry in an undisclosed location.
Those Still Missing
Jaycee’s amazing story gives fresh hope to families of many of the roughly 800 children abducted by strangers and still missing, Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, tells PEOPLE.
“As outrageous and horrendous as this story is, we are absolutely convinced that there are other children out there who are still alive who have been abducted by offenders like this guy,” Allen says.
Although Jaycee’s recovery needs are still being assessed, she’s happy and her family is, too, says Tina, who spent five days with Jaycee and other family members after Garrido’s arrest.
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“She said one day to me, while we were sitting: ‘I’m so happy. I feel so happy.’ That is a message of hope for many people.”
With schools back in session, Dugard also urges that adults keep a close eye on their children and their neighbors’ children. She suggests that, if Garrido’s neighbors in Antioch were more inquisitive, Jaycee might have been recovered much sooner.
“Who knows [what would have happened] if somebody had looked over that backyard fence and seen them?” Dugard says. “We need to be aware of our neighbors. We need to be aware of suspicious circumstances. As a society, we need to be a good community. It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to protect a child.”
• Additional reporting by NICOLE WEISENSEE EGAN
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