The pews at Juan 3:16 Assemblies of God were packed Friday, their occupants ranging from cliques of teens to families toting small children. There were no church services that night – the crowd was there for a different type of vigil.
"The theme is 'Keeping Hope Alive,'" said one of the event's organizers, Alma Rios. "My prayer is that wherever my sister is, all the love that is in the church tonight will travel to her and God will bring her home to us."
Alma Rios (right) and the stage at Friday night's concert.
Rios' sister, 22-year-old Franchesca 'Cheka' Alvarado, left her home on the 4200 block of Darien Street in Hunting Park for a trip to Atlantic City with a male friend on March 13, nearly six months ago. He returned. She did not, and she has not been heard from since.
Alvarado's family filed a missing persons report March 17.
The friend said Alvarado became upset and left their hotel room in the middle of the night. When police asked him to take a polygraph, the friend lawyered up and stopped saying anything at all. Alvarado had no car and there has been no activity on her cell phone or credit cards. She left behind her IDs – and her three-year-old daughter Janiah.
Franchesca Alvarado with Janiah.
"We're here today to inspire each other and inspire everybody else that's hurting," Rios said of the concert and rally in Alvarado's honor. The family has received an outpouring of support, with a "Find Franchesca 'Cheka' Alvarado" Facebook page garnering over 5,200 likes. Rios said they get three to four hundred emails each week on top of phone calls, letters and text messages from strangers as far away as Chicago and Florida who offer to distribute flyers in their hometowns. The sisters' efforts have especially resonated with those who have also felt the pain of loss.
Mia Casteing, another of Alvarado's sisters, is comforted by a friend.
"They've known people who've disappeared," said another of Alvarado's sisters, Tina Diori, of the supporters who helped the family raise a $25,000 reward, largely through the sale of $10 t-shirts. "They have loved ones who have also gone missing. With this case, a lot of them say it's so close to home. They say they can really relate."
Friends and family members offered tearful prayers Friday night.
For Ralphiee Colon, who sat a few rows behind Alvarado's family Friday night, the concert hit close to home on a number of different levels. His sister Melanie 'Zee' Colon, a former acquaintance of Alvarado's whose oldest brother once worked with the young mother, went missing on May 8 after she was picked up by Reynaldo "Chino" Torres at the family's home on the 2400 block of North Reese Street, about a block away from the church.
Melanie Colon was found shot to death on May 12.
The similarities in the two cases are striking. Like Alvarado, Colon was an attractive, 22-year-old Hispanic woman from Hunting Park and a mother – her four-year-old son is named Joshua. Unlike Alvarado, Colon was eventually found, her bullet-riddled body discovered four days later in a wooded area of Juniata Park. Torres, however, never resurfaced, and no arrests have been made, leaving her family tormented by questions of what happened and why.
Melanie Colon with her son Joshua.
"It's about to be four months and we still don't know nothing," Ralphiee Colon said in the living room of his home Friday afternoon. "It's so painful to just know that my sister is six feet under and her killer is still out there, that's why I want this to be worldwide and I won't stop. Because someone knows something in this world and someone's going to say something."
Ralphiee Colon shared a close relationship with his older sister Melanie.
The storm of emotions whipped up by Melanie's unsolved murder is tearing the family apart at the seams, they said. "We're grieving. We're angry. We don't know how to cope. We're not getting answers," Colon's stepmother Marybell said Friday. "Cheka's family is trying to work with the community and we're trying on our own, but yet there are no efforts outside of that to give us the answers that we want. Because at the end of the day, we live in North Philly and there's so many things going on in North Philly every single day that police are overwhelmed and there's just no answers. So that's why the community's got to step up so that people like Melanie, she's not going to be forgotten."
Memorials to Melanie hang outside the Colon's home (left) and inside Ralphiee's bedroom.
Like Alvarado's family, Ralphiee has been bolstered by the support he's received through a Facebook page he made for Melanie, receiving hundreds of messages from those who have suffered similar losses. "Everybody goes through something," he said. "That's why when I read stories, I know I'm not the only one going through something like that and I don't feel like it's unfair. It's unfair because I lost my sister, very unfair, but I don't feel like I'm the only one missing something because I read so many stories on her Facebook."
In an extraordinary picture of Ralphiee taken at Melanie's grave, a shadowy figure can be seen
sitting beside him. He believes it to be his sister's spirit keeping vigil.
Ralphiee is also glad that he can set the record straight – both Colon and Alvarado were beset by rumors they were escorting or engaged in other illegal activities when their stories first hit local media outlets. "I made the page so that people can read about what happened, about her, and know she wasn't a bad mom," Ralphiee said. "And I'm glad it's public because my nephew doesn't have to grow up wondering if his mom left him. … He's going to get to know, 'Mommy was taken away from me for nothing,' and I want him to stay away from the streets, from everything, because I don't want something to happen to him like something happened to Mel. Because that's my Melanie right now, that's him, because that's a part of her that she left me, left all of us."
Ralphiee and Joshua, who sleeps with a picture of his mother.
Marybell said that remembrance is an important part of continuing to fight for awareness of the two women's stories. "The sad part of this is that … the public eye's not there," she said. "But there's two kids that are suffering, that are going to grow up without their mothers and we're not going to let that be forgotten. We're not going to let them be forgotten because they were important."
Family members say Alvarado's daughter Janiah has been asking to see her mother with
As horrific as both these cases are, they are further compounded by the not knowing. The uncertainty has left the families wracked with questions, complicating their efforts to stitch together the gaping wounds torn open by tragedy. "I look up to Cheka's family so much because they've got faith. Ain't nobody stepping on their toes and they're going to keep their faith up," Ralphiee said. "Because if it was me, I wouldn't be like that. I would be broke down if my sister was still out there. It was from May 8 and we had four days and I was pulling my hair out, literally putting my hair out. I would've been on the moon if my sister was still out there and I didn't even know anything about her."
Rios said that frustration is what her family is coping with now when it comes to Alvarado. "Every night, the last thing I think about before I go to sleep is, 'Where is she?'" she said. "The first thing I think about when I wake up each morning is, 'Is this the day?'"
Many at the concert tearfully clutched their own children.
Diori said that, despite the theme of the concert, it's hard to remain hopeful some days, harder as the weeks stretch on. "I just know that, wherever she is, she's not okay, unless she's deceased and she's with God," Diori said. "But if she's out there and she's being held hostage – these are the things you think about when you have a loved one that's missing. Is she okay? Is she suffering?"
That's why Rios held the event at the church Friday night – not just for Alvarado, but as a requiem for a community in which far too many have suffered unimaginable losses. "People are here that wouldn't normally be in a sanctuary on a Friday night," Rios said. "If a broken person walks in the door, maybe they'll walk out restored. So many people are hurting."
Mia (left), Alma with Alvarado's daughter Janiah.
The families may not get the Natalee Holloway-level of national media attention. They may never appear on Nancy Grace – Alvarado's relatives said a call to the show was rebuffed – or America's Most Wanted, despite the fact that when producers recently asked Facebook users to suggest cases to air, there were over 3,000 comments in support of Franchesca, Rios said. But they have each other, a community ravaged – and bonded – by loss. "One thing about our community is that we stick together," Rios said. "No matter how many people point their finger at this community, we stick together. All the people here tonight are going to demonstrate that."