One spring day in 2004 a young African-American woman named Tamika Huston vanished from her Spartanburg, S.C., apartment.
Her family did everything they could to get the media to pay attention to the 24-year-old’s disappearance, sending out emails, calling newspapers and TV stations – to no avail.
“It was painful watching them struggle for any kind of media coverage-local or national,” says Derrica Wilson, who was born and raised in Spartanburg. “This could have been one of my family members.”
One year almost to the day later, high school senior Natalee Holloway disappeared in Aruba. And that story, of course, was everywhere. “It made me angry but angry in a positive way,” says Derrica. “I wanted to do something to help families like Tamika’s.”
So she turned to her own family to make that happen. In 2008, Derrica and her sister-in-law, Natalie Wilson, started the Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit geared toward helping minority families find missing loved ones. By working closely with police, the media and the families themselves, they have helped locate more than 113 missing people – 71 of them alive.
It’s a daunting task: Thousands of African-Americans go missing each year (one-third of all missing-persons cases). The problem has caught Hollywood’s eye: Tyler Perry recently offered a $100,000 reward for tips leading to the discovery of two missing Florida men.
The Wilsons fund the foundation out of their own pockets and make themselves available day and night to grieving families – even though they both have full-time jobs and families of their own. “Let’s just say it’s a calling,” says Derrica, 34. They have more than 2,000 cases in their database (they only take on cases in which police reports were filed).
“I believe in what they do,” says Washington, D.C. assistant police chief Diane Groomes, who was so impressed with their work she joined their board of directors.
The sisters in law divvy up their duties based on what they do best. Derrica, a cop for years who currently works as an investigator for a D.C. agency, coaches families on how to deal with law enforcement and the media. Natalie, 43, a public relations expert, works on getting the cases coverage on radio, newspapers, the web and television.
They’ve also partnered with TV One and national radio host Michael Baisden to get ongoing coverage of different cases. “It’s one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had,” says Baisden, whose show has helped find 14 children. “There is nothing more traumatizing than losing your child and not knowing if they are alive or dead.”
On Feb. 13, the sisters-in-law started a support group for families that meets weekly in Washington, D.C. “Coping with a missing loved one is traumatic and overwhelming,” says Natalie. “We want families to know that they are not alone.” On May 25, they will host a 5K run in Ft. Washington, Md. to raise awareness of the issue.
No one is more appreciative of these efforts than the families they are helping. “If I had the next hundred years I couldn’t thank them enough,” says Unique Harris, 45, who says Derrica and Natalie got the Washington, D.C. media to give some much-needed attention to the still-unsolved disappearance of her daughter Valencia, 24.
“When I talk to Natalie and Derrica I let them know I love them, “she says, “and they’re like family now.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine