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‘Baby Jessica’, Natalee Holloway’s Mom and More Share: How PEOPLE Changed My Life

For the past five decades, PEOPLE has told stories of extraordinary stories of courage, perseverance and humanity. As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, we revisited some of the individuals who have touched readers’ hearts.

Alexa Smagala

People has kept in touch with the now-22-year-old graduate student, who lost her father on Sept. 11, 2001, for more than two decades.

Understanding that I didn’t have a father but other kids did was weird at first. Sometimes it was hard to be asked about it because I’d think how different it would have been if he was here. More so now.

I wish he could have come to my college graduation. That’s just how death works. One day they’re here, one day they’re not. You have to cope with that, and that’s confusing. It was my mom’s loss, my loss. It was harder on her because she didn’t want me to feel the pain through her. She was trying to protect me.

Dena and baby Alexa (under the second e in the logo) with 30 other 9/11 moms and their newborns.

Sharing my story with PEOPLE helped connect. When we did the 20th anniversary story, I came to terms more with the loss. You feel like your problem is so big, but then compared to what’s going on in the world, it’s kind of small.

When I met the other kids going through the same thing, it was a relief. “Well, this sucks, but I’m not the only one who feels this way.” Every once in a while we check in, but we’re all in different states and colleges now.

At 22, it’s much easier to talk about losing a parent. I see the number 226 everywhere. That was his engine number. I feel like he’s with me. — As told to LIZ MCNEIL

Alexa Smagala in 2021.
Victoria Stevens

Keishall Barrow

The mother, then 22, was separated from her 20-month-old daughter, Kalise, for three weeks following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. PEOPLE published a successful call to reunite them.

The hurricane hit. We didn’t know it was going to be as bad as it was, so we were all scrambling. Everything was flooded. Everybody’s crying. My three kids, their dad had recently died in a car accident. [Barrow was living with her aunt while working and going to school, and her children were staying with family members.]

The next morning I told my aunt, “I have to go to the [New Orleans] Superdome. I have to see if I see my mom, my son and [daughters].”

Keishall and Kalise Barrow in PEOPLE Magazine following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

She was able to locate her mother and her son Kalin, 10 months, at the Superdome, and a few days later she received a call about her daughter Kenya, 2, who was safe in Atlanta with another aunt. Her search for Kalise took her to Houston, to no avail.

I remember breaking down in a bathroom, praying, “God, I need to hear from somebody.” After the People story came out, my phone starts ringing off the hook. The first lady that called said, “Kalise is in Mississippi. Call the sheriff’s department. They know where your daughter is.” So I booked my bus ticket. I go to Mississippi.

When Kalise saw me walking in, she had fire in her feet. She said, “Mama!” and took off running to me. Fast-forward, Kalise is now in school to be a journalist. I say, “Kalise, tell your story. Because what are the odds you were in PEOPLE, and now here you are? You’re going to be telling other people’s stories, but guess what? You already have a story to tell, baby.” — As told to ALEX ROSS

Kalise Barrow is now 20 years old and a journalism student.
courtesy alex ross

Beth Holloway

When 18-year-old Natalee Holloway disappeared in Aruba in 2005, PEOPLE joined her mother in the search for answers, a quest that lasted decades.

[PEOPLE reporter] Jeff [Truesdell] and I were in Aruba for the same reason: to find out what happened to Natalee. We developed a trust. He disseminated posters and chased down theories. We were not able to get any real information from authorities.

So we began searches on our own. He picked me up at the hotel in his rental car, and we traveled to a compound where we thought Natalee might have been taken. We didn’t know what we were going to find. Jeff had found the address of one of the persons of interest. There was a concrete fence topped with circles of barbed wire around the house.

Beth Holloway, mother of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in Aruba in 2005.

Jeff got out first. “I’m going to scope it out,” he said. He was just that kind of straight-up reporter. We didn’t find Natalee, but I was able to put that to rest in my mind: I had visited the home, I’d seen it.

It’s very tiring for families to continue these searches for their missing loved ones, but little threads of information could be around any corner. [People was] a powerful tool in that search, in turning over every stone for answers. In seeking justice. — As told to EMILY PALMER

Beth Holloway speaks to media after the appearance of Joran van der Sloot outside the Hugo L. Black Federal Courthouse Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Birmingham, Ala.

Jeanne White-Ginder

More than three decades ago, after the boy from Kokomo, Ind., was banned from his high school, he helped galvanize the country to stand up for people with HIV/AIDS.

Ryan was diagnosed in 1984. He had just turned 13. He was one of the first children and hemophiliacs to contract AIDS [via blood transfusion]. They only gave him three to six months to live. He lived for five more years. Ryan was bored at home. He said, “Call the school. I don’t want to flunk.”

PEOPLE’s May 30, 1988 cover featuring Ryan White, who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1984.

After the school board voted not to let him back in, overnight the story broke. The next day, media was everywhere at our house. An attorney called and asked, “Do you really want to go to school that bad? It could get ugly.” Ryan said yes. I saw how that gave him hope. He wasn’t living to die. He was living to live.

Ryan felt comfortable with PEOPLE. They showed him with a smile on his face. He said [PEOPLE contributor] Taro Yamasaki was the only person he wanted to photograph him, because he wouldn’t make him look sickly. Ryan did not want to portray people with AIDS like they could not live normal lives.

There was so much hatred and discrimination towards the gay community at the time, and the IV drug users. Ryan wanted to fight for everybody who had AIDS. He had a purpose. He worried about everybody else. His story touched the nation. I could not be more proud. He had a heart of gold.
— As told to LIZ McNEIL

Jeanne White-Ginder, mother of Ryan White, who was featured in PEOPLE after he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1984.

Jessica McClure

In 1987 the toddler defied the odds — and captured the attention of the nation — after falling into a Texas well.

I don’t remember being rescued. I learned about it when I was 4 and watched it on Rescue 911 at my then stepmother’s house. It was overwhelming. I remember crying. She said, “You do realize that is about you?” My dad said, “We were waiting until she was a little bit older to tell her.”

In a way I guess it happened the way it was supposed to. I was picked on because of it, but most people are kind and think what happened is an amazing miracle. It is. I don’t believe that any of it would’ve happened without God.

PEOPLE’s November 7, 1988 cover marking the one-year anniversary of Jessica McClure’s rescue.

My reputation precedes me. One guy said to my husband, “You’re married to Baby Jessica!” It’s part of my life, but it doesn’t define me. Still, I was going through Facebook with some friends the other day, and I said, “These pictures were in PEOPLE.”

They responded, “You’ve been in PEOPLE?” I said, “Yeah, a few times.” I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t pretty cool. Not many people can say that. — As told to K.C. BAKER

Jessica McClure Morales, now 38, lives in Greenwood, Texas, with her husband Danny and two children, Simon, 17, and Sheyenne, 14.