Column: 2,000-mile journey to find a missing girl

COURTESY PHOTO | Olivia Barszczewski of Greenport competed last month in the Fireball Run, a reality show-style competition where 40 teams travel 2,000 miles over eight days. She competed with two classmates from Alfred State College.

Up until a few weeks ago, Olivia Barszczewski rarely ventured off Long Island. She grew up in Greenport and attended upstate Alfred State College but otherwise had never experienced the vast diversity the rest of America has to offer.

But in September, on one whirlwind, once-in-a-lifetime trip, the 20-year-old cruised from Colorado to Arizona, then into New Mexico and across to southern California. She met former astronaut Jon McBride and television personalities like Ray McClelland, a co-host of “Car Warriors” on Speed Channel. She traveled in a cramped Chevy Volt alongside a group of people driving Corvettes and Lamborghinis.

It was all part of the seventh Fireball Run, a unique adventure that sends 40 competing teams out on daily missions over eight days. The reality show-style adventure is filmed and aired online. But there’s one major difference that sets the Fireball Run apart.

The competition has nothing to do with winning some grand prize — and everything to do with finding missing children. Each team is assigned a missing child and during the roughly 2,000-mile trip, the teams post fliers and hand out stickers in hopes of unearthing a lead for an otherwise forgotten case of a child gone missing.

The teams in the Fireball Run, which started in 2007, consist mostly of wealthy people and minor celebrities like race car driver Shea Holbrook and stunt man Tom Bahr, who has worked in more than 200 movies and television projects since 1979.

Ms. Barszczewski’s participation resulted from an opportunity she received as a student in Alfred State’s auto body repair program. The dean of the program knew J. Sanchez, an executive producer of Fireball Run at Universal Studios. He also happened to be an avid Rolls Royce collector who was looking to refurbish a Silver Wraith II. He agreed to send the car to Alfred State for the students there to work on.

Ms. Barszczewski, who recently honed her automotive skills working at Riverhead Collision and Car Care Center, and two classmates — Nick Bigelow and Ryan Dontoh — were chosen for the prestigious job, which was unlike anything they had done before.

“The whole experience is crazy,” Ms. Barszczewski said. “Nothing is easy. Everything is complicated.”

Starting in late February, the three students transformed the Rolls Royce from beaten up and shoddy into a sparkling car that looked brand-new. They finished the project in May and got to meet Mr. Sanchez for lunch.

The Fireball Run had come through Alfred a year earlier, so Ms. Barszczewski was familiar with the race. When Mr. Sanchez offered her a spot, she jumped at the opportunity and Team Alfred was born.

Ms. Barszczewski said she believes she’s the youngest contestant to participate in the Fireball Run.

Her journey began with a trip to Colorado for the start of the race. Along the way, her team met up with the Fireball media van, which broke down at one point. The automotive students sprang into action, fixing a crack in the radiator to get the van to Colorado, where they replaced its radiator and water pump.

For those efforts, Team Alfred received the Spirit of a Legend Award at the end of the competition.

“That award was more important than first place, so we were pretty excited about it,” Ms. Barszczewski said.

When the competition kicked off Sept. 20, the teams each received clues they had to figure out for their daily trips. Ms. Barszczewski said she would use her phone to help decipher the clues to missions, which could be quirky things like finding a bullhorn and taking a picture. She would even send the clues to her mom and friends so they could scramble on their computers and relay back information.

“My mom was a huge help,” Ms. Barszczewski said.

Ms. Barszczewski and her teammates were one of the lucky teams that was able to bring an open missing-person case to a conclusion. The girl they were looking for had been reported missing by her mother in 2008. A family member of Ms. Barszczewski’s teammate scoured the Internet for information, ultimately stumbling across someone on Facebook who appeared to be the missing girl. That lead turned out to be correct; the girl, now 15, was reportedly with her father in another country. Ms. Barszczewski said she was unsure exactly what happened in the family or whether the girl had ever been in serious harm.

“People get really emotional about finding these children,” she said.

Since Fireball started, 42 children have been located, Ms. Barszczewski said.

Other cases haven’t ended so well. One team learned just a week before the race was to begin that the child they were to search for had been found dead.

Ms. Barszczewski said some TV executives have been interested in turning the competition into a reality program, but want to drop the missing children angle, feeling that it’s too much of a downer to draw a large audience. So far, organizers of Fireball Run have resisted deviating from the original mission.

For Ms. Barszczewski, it was an eye-opening experience. The other participants become like family, she said.

“They kind of adopt you,” she said.

After finishing her two-year program at Alfred State in May, Ms. Barszczewski’s next plan is to attend technical college in Ohio to learn how to do custom painting on cars. She starts in November.

Her travels from Fireball have her excited about the future.

“In a way it opened me to other things outside of Long Island,” she said. “It made me want to explore more and go to other places.”

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