Dawn Drexel remembers how fearful and overwhelmed she felt in the days after her 17-year-old daughter, Brittanee Drexel, disappeared during a spring break trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 2009.
It’s the experience she endured afterward — the emotional and financial drain — that inspired her to start a new foundation to support other families in their search for loved ones.
“You can’t imagine your child is missing,” Dawn tells PEOPLE. “It’s surreal. You just can’t believe it’s happening to you.”
As Brittanee remained gone, and the days turned into years, Dawn was forced to grapple with the agony of wondering where her daughter was, if she was trying somehow to get home — or if she was dead.
“You’re just numb for the first few years,” Dawn says.
Like other parents of missing children, she had no idea about the costs associated with the search for loved ones who have vanished, including travel and hotel expenses, money for lawyers and other professionals.
When Brittanee disappeared, Dawn moved from her home in Rochester, New York, to Myrtle Beach so she could search for her every day. “You will go to the ends of the earth and try everything possible to find your missing child,” she says.
To help the parents of other missing children, in November, Dawn started Brittanee’s Little Angels to provide long-term advocacy services and support to families of missing children and human trafficking victims.
“I know how hard it is to go through something like this,” Dawn says. “There is no handbook for when a child is missing, but we can help other families through it.”
Her aim is to help others deal with the emotional toll of searching for a loved one who has gone missing and share what she has learned along the way. “I want everyone with a child who is missing to know we are here for you,” she says.
She also wants to raise enough money so that Brittanee’s Little Angels can fund families in their search: “I’d like to help fly someone out to where they need to go or help if someone needs a bill paid.”
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Dawn says she wants to fight for legislation that will help families keep their jobs while they are searching for a missing child. “I want to help take some of that burden away,” she says.
She also wants to educate the public and raise awareness. “I would love to get into schools, PTAs and colleges to help save someone from going missing.”
‘A Parent’s Worst Nightmare’
Dawn’s search began on April 25, 2009, when she learned that Brittanee had gone to Myrtle Beach for spring break without her permission — and that she was missing.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” Dawn says.
Seven years after Brittanee vanished on Ocean Boulevard, the busy main drag in the popular resort town, Dawn learned that authorities believe her daughter was kidnapped, held against her will for several days, gang-raped and fatally shot, before being thrown to alligators.
Citing a jailhouse confession from an inmate, according to a court transcript obtained by PEOPLE, an FBI agent testified in August that McClellanville, South Carolina, resident Timothy Da’Shaun Taylor, who was 16 in 2009, played a role in Brittanee’s disappearance.
Cellphone records showed Brittanee’s phone pinged seven miles south of Myrtle Beach just half an hour after her disappearance. Then, two and a half hours later, at 11:58 p.m., her cellphone pinged again, 50 miles south of Myrtle Beach, in McClellanville.
The agent testified at a federal detention hearing for Taylor to determine whether he should be freed as he awaited trial on unconnected federal robbery charges.
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Taylor has not been charged in connection with Brittanee’s disappearance and has denied all involvement.
His attorney, David Aylor, previously told PEOPLE the prosecution has no evidence linking his client to the missing teen and that the government brought Taylor into court on the robbery charges to try to “squeeze” him into cooperating with their investigation.
Taylor has said in media interviews that he was in school when Brittanee vanished and that he did not have anything to do with her disappearance or death.
The investigation is ongoing. No arrests have been made.
Dawn is focused on helping as many other families, in their own searches, as she can. “We are already getting calls,” she says.
“I know Brittanee would want me to do this,” she says. “I am doing this in her honor.”