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Searching for Daniel

Since her brother disappeared in 2011, Loren O’Keeffe has been pounding the pavement in hopes of finding him and raising awareness for other missing persons.

Two days before Daniel O’Keeffe was meant to tackle the 10K at Run Melbourne 2011 with his sister Loren, he vanished. One minute he’d been chatting to his dad in his parents’ kitchen in Geelong, the other he was gone.

“It was strange because he hadn’t taken anything with him,” says his sister Loren. “Initially, there was no cause for panic because – on paper at least – he was a strong, capable 24-year-old man. But we were worried because he’d been diagnosed with depression six months earlier and he’d been trying everything to get through it, but nothing seemed to be working. When he didn’t turn up to teach his Brazilian jiu-jitsu class that night, we knew something was wrong – he would never let his students down. So Mum and Dad called the Geelong police and he was registered as missing, which was so bizarre. It’s not a scenario you ever imagine you’ll find yourself in.”

The next morning, Loren headed to the station with her partner and Daniel’s girlfriend to convince the police that this was an urgent case. “We were trying to explain that he was very vulnerable with his mental illness, but they couldn’t really see that,” she says. “So we spent the next three days madly trying to inform the local community. We didn’t want to put it online until we were sure he wasn’t just going to have a breather and come back. But on the third day, we turned to social media and it spread like wildfire.”

Despite all the coverage, the O’Keefes weren’t any closer to finding Daniel five months later. “That’s when we decided to announce a reward,” says Loren. “We got a huge amount of media attention from that and one of the shows that covered it was national. A woman in Queensland saw it and recognised Dan as the man who’d gone into her medical clinic two weeks earlier. It was after hours and he’d spoken with the receptionist and the cleaner for 10 minutes. He’d said he was from Melbourne and his name was James, which is Dan’s middle name. He had the same mannerisms, height, looks and personality – everything matched. I had goose bumps.”

Because Loren had quit her job at the Department of Education when Daniel went missing to focus on finding him, she was able to jump on the first plane headed to Brisbane. “I turned up at the clinic in Ipswich unannounced and spoke to the two women,” says Loren. “The manager ended up showing me the CCTV footage and it was the most surreal experience of my life. It was actually quite distressing because Dan is normally a strong, six-foot-tall, athletic male, but in the footage he was a frail, completely emaciated version of himself. It was really worrying.”

Daniel had told the clinic employees that he’d been sleeping in parks around Brisbane, so Loren spent two months scouring the area. “I went to all the soup kitchens, food vans, men’s shelters and parks at all hours of the day and night,” she says. “I had 2000 business cards printed with Dan’s face on them and all the details on the back. I was giving them to everyone I could think of and doing as much local media as I could. At least two of the people I spoke to definitely saw Dan, but I couldn’t find him. He’d obviously moved on. So I went back home completely deflated because I’d sworn I wouldn’t come home without him.”

But Loren wasn’t ready to give up on Dan. “The last thing he said to me before he disappeared was, I’ll see you at Run Melbourne,” she says. “We’d been training together and we’d raised $1000 for Lifeline, the crisis support organisation Dan had been using to help him through his depression. So rather than sitting at home and crying all day on the anniversary of his disappearance in 2012, I decided to get the family and a few close friends together and we all ran Run Melbourne. We had T-shirts made and we raised $10,000 for Lifeline, which was a really positive way to mark a really shitty day.”

Run Melbourne has become a tradition for Loren and her loved ones – they’ve run it every year since then. But now they raise funds for Loren’s very own organisation, Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN). “When Dan first went missing, I was really surprised that there were no directions anywhere for what to do when someone disappears,” she says. “So I had this idea to create a website that would guide people, but making a solid website isn’t cheap. Someone told me about the Vodafone Foundation World of Difference grant, which was $85,000, but I needed to have a registered charity. So I started MPAN (mpan.com.au) in 2013 and I got the grant.”

After raising an additional $18,000 at Run Melbourne in 2013, Loren was able to launch the Missing Persons Guide website (missingpersonsguide.com). The step-by-step guide to searching for a missing person includes templates for posters and media releases, as well as databases of hospitals, homelessness services and media outlets around the country.

“Of course I would love nothing more than for Dan to come home, but in the meantime we’re making so much good happen,” says Loren. “Families of other missing Australians have started joining us at Run Melbourne, which is amazing. It’s a really positive way to channel the grief because there are no conventional ceremonies for a missing person. We don’t get to have a funeral, so doing a run like this with people you can relate to is a really positive way to mark this type of loss. We raised just over $20,000 dollars this year, so that means MPAN gets to continue and keep improving. In a way, I feel like Dan has given me the ultimate gift because every day I get to do something I’m so passionate about.”

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