Mollie Tibbetts has been missing since the middle of July, but her face is everywhere in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. It’s taped to telephone poles and store windows. It’s on yard signs and t-shirts and magnets stuck to the back of 18-wheelers.
Most of this paraphernalia can be traced back to Live Now Designs, a photo and print shop occupying a brick storefront on Jackson Street on Brooklyn’s south end. In the last three weeks, the shop has become a center of action for the community’s efforts to find the Iowa college student, who went missing on July 18.
Thousands of flyers, uncountable hours and giving hearts
Joy VanLandschoot, who owns the store with her husband Gabe, says the demand for items related to the search for Mollie Tibbetts is overwhelming. They’ve sold a thousand shirts, at least. And the number of free flyers? It’s impossible to tell.
“A week ago we were at 20,000 flyers and business cards,” Joy VanLandschoot says. “We’ve made a lot more since then.”
But it started with the shirts, she says. A few days after Mollie went missing, some people stopped by and wanted shirts printed so they could wear them to RAGBRI, an annual statewide cycling event. VanLandschoot wanted to make sure Mollie’s family was okay with it.
“I asked them to help me contact the family,” she told CNN. “So the Sunday after Mollie went missing, I met with Jake Tibbetts [her father] and Morgan Collum [her cousin], and they helped design a shirt to help find Mollie.”
They thought people would be interested, so they made a hundred. Then demand grew, and grew some more.
“People wanted yard signs and magnets and stickers and buttons, and people kept saying ‘yes.’” she says. “We didn’t realize how big it would spread.”
VanLandschoot is adamant in making it clear that the whole thing – the posters and flyers and buttons and general feeling of awareness and activism – is very much a community effort.
Local businesses have donated blank business cards and reams of paper for flyers. Total Choice Shipping & Printing in nearby Grinnell is also distributing materials. About a week ago, a massage therapist came to Live Now to give much-needed massages to worn-out volunteers.
Mollie’s whole family is active in raising awareness of the search, and Jake Tibbetts stops by the shop regularly to check in and thank people who are getting the word out about his daughter. The shop’s Facebook page is awash with conversations and posts about Mollie, from close friends and community members and complete strangers alike.
“It’s just been tremendous, the outpouring,” VanLandschoot says. “I didn’t know Mollie, but I feel like I do now, seeing her face every day and hearing her story,” she says.
A small town’s dedication goes national
Now, Mollie’s face isn’t just in Brooklyn, it’s everywhere. Her disappearance is national news. Posters and magnets and signs are appearing in places across the country. VanLandschoot says people from neighboring states have driven hours to pick up materials to raise awareness for Mollie’s disappearance. Just this weekend, a trio stopped by on their way from Missouri to Davenport, Iowa to purchase shirts to wear to a race.
“It’s hit the Iowa Speedway,” VanLandschoot says, of the movement to find Mollie. “It’s hit the Letcher Flea Market. We’re trying to hit Knoxville. We’re trying to spread awareness as far as we can.”
It goes even further than that. Mollie’s Movement, a Facebook page created by members of the Brooklyn community, has nearly 9,000 followers, some from the other side of the world. That particular page is focused on positivity and awareness rather than the harrowing ins and outs of the investigation. VanLandschoot says that’s for a reason.
“I think love and positivity are some of the most important things right now,” she says. “We need to keep hope and Mollie is out there, probably alive, and it’s important to keep the movement going. It also gives other people a voice, and shows other communities that, if they’re dealing with the same thing, there is a way to come together and help.”
Brooklyn is a small town, with less than 2,000 people occupying a little more than one square mile. VanLandschoot has lived here her whole life. She says confidently that it’s not just Mollie’s face that’s everywhere. It’s her spirit, and the permeating belief that, as a community, an extended family of sorts, Brooklyn can bring one of their own back home.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” she says. “And someone has messed with our village.”
CNN’s Darran Simon contributed to this report