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A lost child’s best friend at the fair

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

It starts with a dispatch call of distinguishing characteristics: plaid shorts, braided hair or blinking sneakers.

A child has been separated from family among the blur of the crowd.

Parents panic. People begin searching.

But at the California Mid-State Fair, one woman is always paying close attention.

Linda Raine, a calm and meticulous 61-year-old mother with a 17-year history in education, runs the fair’s lost child division.

According to her count, 131 kids were reported missing at last year’s fair. All were reunited.

On Monday, 16 children were reported missing, some as young as 4 years old. The day’s reports ranged from teary-eyed youngsters to adults fixed in panic.

One of the first cases Monday began with Claudia Montes of Santa Maria.

It was stifling hot when 37-year-old Montes gave her niece, nephew and boyfriend’s son permission to go on one ride and then report back. They are ages 6, 8 and 10.

“I said I’m going to be right here waiting,” Montes said, as she recalled those minutes of separation.

As the children left, Montes said the heat hit her. Her heart began to race, her neck flushed and she thought she might black out.

“I turned to someone right next to me and said ‘Please, I need help.’ ”

Montes said her focus remained on the kids she promised to watch, even as her dizziness increased.

“I kept telling them, ‘The kids. Where are the kids? How am I going to find them?’ ”

A passerby relayed Montes’ situation to Raine’s team, who then dispatched the trio’s description over their portable radios.

Taking note of one child’s camouflage pants, one of the responders spotted a glimpse of green and brown clothing and took off after them.

The three kids were found, completely unaware anyone was looking for them.

Later, as the kids sat with Montes in the air-conditioned medic’s station, they said they went on three or four more rides and to the restroom.

Raine said Montes’ situation is all too common at the fair. Whatever the reason adults become distracted, “kids are so fast, they can dart off in an instant.”

That’s why Raine has her own protocol for finding lost children and relays those tips to colleagues. After 10 years with the fair’s lost children division, she knows what works.

As the Selena Gomez concert ended Monday night, a 4-year-old boy was separated from his mother as crowds rushed for the exits.

The boy had found an event staffer to help him, but he couldn’t describe his mother.

When this happens, Raine said, she takes a child’s hand and points to a crowd.

“I ask them, ‘Out of all these people, how would Mommy or Daddy stand out?’ ”

The descriptors almost always pour out, she said.

This time though, Raine wasn’t with the boy. But she was listening. Around the same time, a seemingly unrelated call came from a parent.

Something inside Raine urged her to radio request the mother’s name, something she normally doesn’t do.

When the 4-year-old heard his mother’s name, he perked up. The team knew it was a match.

If the circumstances merit it, she’ll call to lock the gates, though she couldn’t recall the last time that happened. She also asks the child a series of questions after they’ve been reunited to make sure they’re with the right person.

“I just look at children as precious individuals,” she said. “And if we listen to them, we learn something.”

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