Willmar grads connect online to reunite child with her blanket
WILLMAR -- A Willmar High School alumnus' did his part to nudge law enforcement in the right PR direction thanks to his recent actions. Lt. Justin Malone of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Police received a Facebook message the nig...
WILLMAR - A Willmar High School alumnus’ did his part to nudge law enforcement in the right PR direction thanks to his recent actions.
Lt. Justin Malone of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Police received a Facebook message the night of June 29 from a fellow Willmar graduate, Kirstin (Gilbertson) Howell, which was a plea for help. Her 4-year-old daughter Anna had lost her blanket, Whitey, in the airport terminal the previous day.
The morning of June 30, after searching lost and founds and scavenging through wastebaskets, Malone pulled Whitey out of a paper bag of miscellaneous items behind a desk at gate A7. The search lasted “somewhere between half-hour to an hour,” according to Malone.
He snapped a picture to make his recapture Facebook official and to save a little girl big heartache.
The only person as relieved as Anna was her mother, who had figured chances of finding Whitey were “very slim.”
“I actually started looking online to see how much a replacement was going to cost,” Kirstin Howell said. “When I found out how much a replacement was going to cost for Whitey, that’s kind of when I thought ‘OK, I’ve got to step this up a notch.’ ”
Malone, who often receives requests like Howell’s, also figured he had little chance to rescue Whitey.
“This was a longshot,” Malone said. “I didn’t honestly think that I was going to be able to find it.”
Malone’s efforts proved to Howell that many police officers are dedicated to helping people out.
“We’re teaching (our kids) that not only are police officers protecting us, but police officers are also community helpers,” said Kirstin Howell, whose husband, James, has served as a police officer for a decade.
“Police officers don’t get the best rap, and this is something Justin didn’t have to do for me,” Kirstin Howell said.
She guessed that Malone’s recent fatherhood (he has an 8-month-old son) spurred him on to find the blanket.
Malone admitted as much but said that he believes he would have searched extensively no matter who was missing something. He’d like to think so, anyway. He said that the entire airport police department is promoting “going the extra mile” to ensure that the community of travelers is helped.
Howell and Malone were friends throughout junior and senior high school but hadn’t seen each other in roughly a decade.
The Howells travel to Minnesota from their home in Bridgman, Michigan, typically once every year to visit Kirstin Howell’s parents. This trip was the first time Anna, who turns 5 in August, had carried Whitey with her through the airport.
When it was time to board the plane that would return them to South Bend, Indiana, they were so concerned with boarding that Whitey presumably got left on a seat in the waiting terminal.
The plane was cool, and, as they readied for takeoff, blanket cover seemed like a good idea. They soon realized that Whitey might not make a return trip.
“I said, ‘Anna, Whitey’s not here,’ ” Kirstin Howell said. “I miss Whitey, I miss Whitey,” Anna replied, frustrated, though tear-free.
Anna’s emotions worsened as her separation from Whitey lengthened.
“Tuesday, she was having a really rough night,” Kirstin Howell said. She decided to show Anna the picture of Malone holding the blanket, which cheered her up but also tested her patience. She clamored for Whitey to appear immediately and was disappointed upon learning that Whitey’s travel would take a few days.
“This (was her) longest absence from Whitey,” Kirstin Howell said.
The absence is over.