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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- One of the most emotional ceremonies of the year was held at the state Capitol Monday as Florida paused to remember missing children who disappeared and never came home.

Bells tolled in the Capitol Courtyard for the Florida Missing Children's Day ceremony.

It is a painful annual tradition for families, but they are committed to attending the ceremony to raise awareness of this continuing problem and also push for new ways to protect children.

Families gathered to remember and honor their lost loved ones -- children like Mark Degner and Bryan Hayes of Jacksonville, best friends who disappeared in February 2005.

Jeff Nelson attended the ceremony for the first time to honor his sister Elisa Nelson of Palm Harbor. She was kidnapped and murdered in 1980.

RELATED: Four from First Coast honored at Missing Children's Day ceremony

"It's heartbreaking to know that there's this much pain going on out there. So many families that are broken and have no idea what happened to their children."

The grandmother of Zachary Bernhardt, Carole Bernhardt, said attending the ceremony gets harder for her every year. Zacharydisappeared on September 11, 2000.

"So this is like two days. We have this and then Wednesday we have to go through it all again. It's been 12 years, going on 13 years."

She hopes Floridians teach their children lessons of safety and stranger danger.

"I hope a lot of children watch and pay attention, and the parents too, and help teach their kids all about it because they could prevent a lot of the children being taken."

Each year, more than 40,000 children are reported missing in Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott said Florida is working to find every missing person and trying to improve its methods of response to bring missing children home safely.

He recognized Child Abuse Response Teams around Florida, who have acted fast and successfully found missing children.

"In the past year, the CART teams from around the state have found eight children. This is another great example of how law enforcement agencies are working together to quickly find children that have been abducted."

Scott, a new grandfather, said he was thinking about families with missing loved ones during the ceremony.

"Your heart goes out to them. You just can't imagine losing a loved one. You just can't imagine how your life would be changed."

First Lady Ann Scott echoed his sentiments.

"My heart just breaks for these families who have missing, lost children and I just want to thank all the people of Florida, FDLE, sheriffs' offices, everyone who do everything possible to try and help these families find their lost ones."

Drew and JoyceKesse of Orlando still hold out hope that their daughter JenniferKesse will be found alive. She disappeared in January, 2006 at the age of 24.

"If you ask me, it's terrorism. It's true terrorism. They've terrorized my family. They terrorized my daughter. It's home-grown but it's real and people have to understand that and they have to understand that it could happen to them at any second. It happened to our daughter," said Drew Kesse.

The case of three Cleveland women, abducted and held for more than a decade before getting free, gives Joyce Kesse hope.

"Hope is a tiny word, but a powerful four-letter word. Without hope you can't live a positive life. You've got to. You just have to have that hope and believe, believe in a miracle. They happen. We would never have even believed that one of our two children would ever by the victim of such a heinous crime. But I think thepositiveness of three women who were held the longest, 11 years, their success and recovery has just recreated hope for so many that I think the lesson that is to be learned for the public is pay attention. If something doesn't feel right, something doesn't look right, you're not a detective. Reach out and call law enforcement and say, 'Gee, I don't know if there's anything really wrong here but I'm suspicious of a situation.' Make the call because you know what, you may just save a life."

Families said they hoped Floridians would see the ceremony and take Amber Alerts more seriously.

Jeff Nelson hoped others would understand just how fortunate they really are every day their family is safe.

"A lot of people come to something like this, they see it, it touches their hearts, and then they go home. And the next day they go on about their lives and don't think about it until the next year. It'd be nice if people carried it with them going forward every day and wake up and realize today they're waking up and their family is all in one piece. But there are a lot of families that are waking up and still have no answer and don't know where their children are."


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