Residents ask council to consider program in PA to benefit autistic

Written by Emily Bell on . Posted in Local

Two Port Allen parents are striving for implementation of a not-for-profit program within the city, the parish and the school system, a program which provides life-saving services to those with autism,

Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and other mental disabilities.

Mark and Randi Stephens, Port Allen residents, have two autistic sons, the youngest of which they say is the biggest flight risk, or the most prone to wander away from home.

When they lived in Raleigh, N.C., they said they benefitted from a not-for-profit program, of which they are not affiliated, called Project Lifesaver International.

The organization, headquartered in Chesapeake, Va., works in conjunction with local law enforcement, fire departments, and search and rescue teams to locate “special needs wanderers” quickly and effectively via tracking devices. The tracking devices are worn as bracelets or anklets, come in blue or pink for children and can be submerged under water.

Randi said the waterproof aspect is vital considering many autistic children are drawn to water.

Last year on Dec. 14, Kaleb Shavers, a 6-year-old autistic child, went missing and his body was found three to four hours later off of La. Hwy 190 in Port Allen – about two miles from where he went missing, The Advocate reported.

Randi said that death possibly could have been prevented by the quick-finding services of Project Lifesaver.

Mark and Randi both said the program has a 100 percent success rate with a less than 30-minute average response and find time, compared to what they say is an average nine-hour response and find time, many times resulting in loss of life.

“Time is of the essence,” Randi said.

She said she currently has three locks on her door out of fear that her youngest son will wander away from home.

“When we got here, the program didn’t exist,” Mark said.

Randi said, without the program, she has gotten to where she has to sleep in the same room as her youngest son.

“You sleep very lightly,” she said.

Mark calls Project Lifesaver “a low-cost solution to really keep those that we love safe.

Randi said she would like to see the program implemented in Port Allen before the one-year anniversary of Shavers’ death, as a tribute to Shavers and his family.

Mark said a public office must apply for the program and, if accepted, pay a $5,000 start-up cost which includes training. However, he said grants are available, and then each tracking device costs between $250 and $300. Tracking devices are in many cases sponsored, he said, or in some cases Medicare or Medicaid provides them, Randi said.

After that, all that is required is a $5 a month maintenance cost per device and a law enforcement officer representative to change the batteries every 30 days, Mark said.

He said any costs associated with the program are low compared to average search and rescue costs without the program. According to Project Lifesaver materials, the average cost of a search in Chesapeake, Va. is $342,000.

“I’m confident, upon implementation of this (program), others will soon follow,” Mark said.

He said he eventually hopes to extend the program to East Baton Rouge Parish.

“The biggest question is funding,” he said.

Port Allen Fire Chief Rick Boudreaux said parish search and rescue is split between the WBR Sheriff’s Office and the local fire departments. He said he applied for a $5,000 Project Lifesaver grant on behalf of the Port Allen Fire Department, which covers a radius of about 54 miles.

According to Project Lifesaver materials, the program currently exists in 48 states, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

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