The first successful Amber Alert rescue is set to begin college in the fall of 2017, 18 years after her recovery.
When she was just 8 weeks old, Rae-Leigh Bradbury, now 18, was kidnapped from her Arlington, Texas, apartment by her babysitter, according to KXAS. Prior to the incident, Arlington police had yet to use the Amber Alert, still a fledgling experiment by the local department at the time. Only 90 minutes after police activated the alert, motorists had spotted the babysitter's pickup truck on the freeway.
The babysitter was then arrested, and Bradbury was recovered unharmed.
Bradbury now plans to attend the University of Texas at Austin in the fall.
"When I start thinking about it, I start to weep up," said Bradbury's mother, Patricia Sokolowski. "I sort of cry because there's so much going, and it's all happening."
"It was definitely a feeling that I don't wish on anyone, that emptiness, that 'don't know what to do feeling,'" Sokolowski said.
The Amber Alert system was introduced in 1998 after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped in Arlington while riding her bicycle in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center, according to The Star-Telegraph. Witnesses say a man in a dark-colored pickup took Amber, but leads soon went cold. Amber's body was found just four days after the abduction, and her captor remains at large.
Investigators say they have followed more than 8,000 leads and still receive more than a dozen tips every year, vowing that Amber's case will one day be solved.
"As her mother, I’m not going to give up," said Amber's mother Donna Williams. "I still have hope that he will be caught one day."
"Back then, [Amber Alert] was so brand new, we didn't realize what it was," said Sokolowski. "We were just praying for any kind of hope. The Amber Alert gave us hope, gave us a sign that there is a possibility for her to come home."
Bradbury says Amber is like a "guardian angel," and she credits Amber for her safe return as an infant.
"I’m very grateful to Amber Alert," Bradbury told Dallas News in 2011. "Amber didn't get to go back to her mom. I pray every night that missing children can find their way home."
Former U.S. President George W. Bush signed the Amber Alert System into national law in 2003, according to KXAS. The system has been enormously successful, accounting for a 95 percent rescue rate from 2005 to 2015, according to the Star-Telegram.
"The system is extremely successful, but we always want to do more," said Mike Murphy, the Amber Alert program manager for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "Whether there are five deaths, or whether there is one death, that’s one too many. Our goal is to get these kids back safely."