Project Lifesaver helps ease parents’ mind

CHESTER – Worrying comes easy for mothers but especially for Sharon Michael.

As the mother of a child with disabilities, she has the added worry of wondering what would happen if her daughter ever got lost.

“With her disability, she can’t remember phone numbers or addresses,” Michael said. “If she ever got away from the house, she could not get back.”

But in the past month, Sharon Michael’s mind has been put at ease because of a red, plastic bracelet that her daughter now wears.

The bracelet is actually a transmitter that emits a tracking signal approximately once a second. Should Melinda “Mindy” Michael ever become lost, her mother would call the phone number for Hancock County Project Lifesaver and, within minutes, a search for her would be underway.

Such searches, according to Project Lifesaver International, usually locate the missing individual within 30 minutes.

“It’s taken some of the stress off,” Michael said.

Melinda Michael is one of 10 people who have enrolled in the Project Lifesaver program in Hancock County since July 2. About two years in the planning stages, Hancock County Project Lifesaver hopes to add more people to the program in the months to come, said Project Lifesaver liaison Sgt. Liz Calmbacher of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Reserve.

Project Lifesaver enables participating law enforcement agencies to find missing persons in a more timely manner through the use of transmitters and receivers. It is especially for people who wander away from home because they have autism, Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease or similar cognitive conditions.

Families that want to participate in Project Lifesaver must purchase a small personal transmitter, which is worn on the wrist or ankle. The transmitter emits a tracking signal that can be used by trained personnel to find the missing person.

Calmbacher said the sheriff’s department was finally able to launch the program because it had accumulated enough equipment and raised enough money.

Donations from organizations – Weirton Lions Club, Chester VFW Post 6450 Men’s Auxiliary, the cities of Chester and New Cumberland, Marsh Supply – were critical, she said.

“Without their support, we wouldn’t be able to have this program up and running. Our funds are limited. We order what we can, but we’re still looking for donations and sponsors,” Calmbacher said.

With a $5,000 commitment from Hancock County commissioners, $2,000 in savings and a $2,000 match from Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, Hancock County Project Lifesaver was able to buy two portable receivers, two car antennas, two directional antennas, a six-month supply of batteries and other equipment, she said.

The organization also purchased 20 starter kits, which contain everything necessary to last a family one year. The cost for families is a suggested donation of $300 and a $10 monthly maintenance fee.

“Our main mission is not to turn anyone away who can’t afford the program,” Calmbacher said.

Sharon Michael said she enrolled her daughter about a year and a half ago and is glad to finally have her in the program.

Diagnosed with mild mental retardation, Melinda Michael has worn a cerebral shunt to drain excess fluid from the brain since she was a baby, her mother said. She can speak, but her communication skills are limited.

Her disability means that, among other things, she has difficulty communicating basic wants and needs, communicating personal information in case of an emergency, comprehending what is safe and unsafe, and recognizing certain dangers, Sharon Michael said.

Although 25 years old, Melinda has the mental age equivalence of a child who is 5-8 years old, her mother said.

“Her memory’s just not good,” Sharon Michael said. “When she goes out, it is a concern and you worry. It’s a concern because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In 2010, Melinda was at a nearby Chester playground when she was struck by a car and pinned against a tree. The accident seriously injured her hip and damaged her shunt, requiring her to be taken to a Pittsburgh hospital by helicopter ambulance, Michael said.

Melinda has mostly recovered from the accident, but her mother believes it worsened some aspects of her disability. “It didn’t help the situation any,” she said.

Michael also worries about sex offenders that she believes live in her part of Chester. “She’d be an easy target,” she said.

Despite the hazards that accompany daily living, Michael still lets her daughter visit the nearby park where she had the accident. She knows she has neighbors she can count on to watch her daughter, and she sends her there with a cellphone that has her home phone number on speed dial.

“You do have to watch,” she said.

To enroll a family member in Project Lifesaver or to make a donation, call Calmbacher at 304-914-9222.