NEW LONDON, Mo. -- Alexandria Johnston, 8, usually plans the anniversary events in memory of her mother, Christina Whittaker. This Sunday was no different.
Alexandria picked out a card for her mother that said "I miss you," and she selected a photo of Whittaker holding Alexandria as an infant, staring down at her lovingly, to put on a cake. Alexandria even picked out the dress for her grandmother, Cindy Young, to wear at the event.
Whittaker has been missing from Hannibal for eight years on Monday, and the annual event held on or near Nov. 13 helps keep the memory of Whittaker alive. Neither Alexandria nor Young -- Whittaker's mother -- have lost hope that Whittaker will one day come back home.
Alexandria was 6 months old when her mother went missing, and as she's gotten older, not having a mother like the rest of her friends has grown increasingly hard.
"I want my mother for Christmas, wrapped in a box as big as she is and tied in a pretty bow," Alexandria told Young.
Although Sunday's anniversary event started out like the seven before it, the event ended in a huge surprise for Alexandria when Mrs. United States 2017 Lauren Ziegler attended the gathering held this year in New London, Mo.
"There was no way I was going to miss this," Ziegler said. "Since meeting in June, Alexandria and I have had a connection, and I am so happy to be able to surprise her today."
Ziegler, who was previously Mrs. Missouri in the pageant held for married women, uses her position to raise awareness and funds to fight against child trafficking and abuse. She and Alexandria met when Ziegler was a guest speaker at the Missouri Missing event held in Jefferson City.
"Alexandria just adores Lauren," Young said. "Having Lauren here today means so much to Alexandria."
Many tears, both happy and sad, were shed Sunday.
"It's not easy when you have a missing daughter, but we're doing better," Young said. "I want to be able to go to sleep at night and know she's OK."
Whittaker, 21 at the time of her disappearance, was last seen at a Broadway bar in Hannibal the night of Nov. 13, 2009. Young said her daughter tried calling family members for a ride home but couldn't reach anybody. Whittaker's cellphone was later found on a sidewalk near the bar.
Shortly after her disappearance, the Hannibal Police Department received a tip that Whittaker was seen in Peoria, Ill. Since then, more information about Whittaker being in Peoria has come in, and Young and her husband spent several months in a camper in the city looking for their daughter.
"I will never give up searching for her. I want her to know that it is never too late to come home," Young said. "I want my daughter back. Even just a phone call to know she is OK would help.
"I know there are people in Hannibal and Quincy who know something, and there is no reason to be scared to anonymously report information about it. I don't want my daughter forgotten."
Anyone with information regarding Whittaker's whereabouts and disappearance are encouraged to contact the Hannibal or Peoria Police departments.