Bridgeton, New Jersey, is a small city about 45 minutes south of Philadelphia — tucked between fields and farms.
Nearly 50% of the population there is Hispanic, according to the census. Shops, restaurants and grocery stores dedicated to Latinos line the streets.
Many of these businesses have posted fliers of 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez, who went missing there in September 2019. Investigators are holding out hope that the child is still alive and that a sports program they introduced after her disappearance will help foster trust between police and the largely Spanish-speaking immigrant community.
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Dulce disappeared while playing at a nearby park with her brother, who was 3 years old at the time. Her mother, Noema Alavez Perez, was sitting in her car just 30 yards away helping her 8-year-old sister do homework.
“It’s been really hard for me and for my parents, knowing that Dulce doesn’t appear,” Perez, told ABC News. “Nobody knows where she is.”
“She was a sweet girl. Nice, loving,” Perez said. “She likes to pretend that she was always a princess. She likes to be around like smaller kids. She always like to give hugs. And kisses.”
There isn’t a day she doesn’t think about her daughter.
“I would say to her that I’m sorry for not looking over her,” she said tearfully.
After her disappearance, the city’s Police Athletic League (PAL) launched indoor soccer to help build the relationship between community and police.
Bridgeton Police officer Josh Thompson, the director of PAL and 25-year-veteran, said the department doesn’t want people to feel scared if they have concerns about their legal status and withhold information that could delay finding Dulce.
“What we really wanted to do was really go out and extend our hand to let you know that we were really behind you. So we offered up some more programs,” Thompson said.
More than 40 boys and girls regularly attend the soccer practices. The program also offers counseling sessions, GED instruction and nutrition classes for parents.
“I play soccer here and it was always like a dream to me to play soccer with a team,” 11-year-old Darikson told ABC News.
Dulce’s disappearance is still on everyone’s mind.
“With the disappearance of Dulce Alvarez, this helped our community to be stronger and connect more with the people,” 15-year-old Brian said.
That’s exactly what this program aims to do.
“You don’t have to worry about if you’re a citizen,” Thompson said. “We’re focusing on trying to find this young lady, and if you have any information, you don’t have to worry about anything.”
Dulce’s family is grateful their little girl hasn’t been forgotten.
“They’re not like giving up on her, they keep sharing her posts,” she said. “And there’s even a tree in the park about her so every time kids or adults go there, they see her tree and there’s a picture of her there.”
“You have to keep your motor running so you can keep going forward,” she added, in Spanish.
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