Program Helps Locate Those Who Have Wandered from Their Caretakers

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

Photography Provided

Project Lifesaver is a proactive response for families that have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, Epilepsy, dementia, autism, Down syndrome or any traumatic brain injury or cognitive disorder that might cause them to wander from their caretakers. Fitted with a battery-operated radio transmitter to the wrist or ankle with a frequency that is unique to them, the band emits an inaudible pulse once per second. Members of the fire and police departments are trained to tune receivers to the frequency of the client who has gone missing.

Project Lifesaver International was formed in 1998. Hendricks County started the program in 2008 with Brownsburg being the first in the county to launch it. According to Karen Hendershot, program coordinator with the Avon Fire Department (AFD), the Brownsburg department had heard about it from Wayne Township. As the program grew, clients from Avon, Plainfield, Danville and surrounding areas got involved.

Since Hendershot began oversight of the program in 2014, enrollment has nearly doubled (going from 30 clients to 56 currently). Sadly, last summer Shalom Lawson, an 8-year-old autistic boy from Louisville, was visiting family in Brownsburg when he wandered into a retention pond and drowned. Following that tragic incident, word about Project Lifesaver spread and Hendricks County experienced a surge in enrollment.

“That little boy’s death brought an unfortunate awareness to the program,” Hendershot says. “While it’s hard to say if the outcome would have changed had Shalom been wearing a Project Lifesaver band, it certainly would have reduced the amount of time the search took place.”

Hendricks County strives to keep the program free to families in need, operating fully on funding from grants, fundraisers, local business sponsors and client donations.

“We’re extremely thankful for the amount of support our community has given our program,” Hendershot says.

More recently, Champion Chevrolet donated $15,000 to aid the county in putting receivers (tracking units) in five Avon schools and training personnel on how to respond should a student go missing.

“The goal is to have receivers in every school where we have clients,” Hendershot says.

In the four years since Hendershot has been in charge of Project Lifesaver, the AFD has been dispatched to search seven times and thus far has had 100 percent success rate on all searches.

Last summer a family from Wayne Township was visiting Washington Township Park when a teenage client wandered away from the shelter house. The caregiver called 911, explained that they were part of Project Lifesaver and that her child had gone missing. The AFD was able to pick up the teen’s frequency, and units from Avon, Plainfield and Brownsburg all responded to the search and found the client lying in a grassy area.

“These families have to deal with a lot of different situations, including medications, doctor’s appointments and general care,” Hendershot says. “Knowing they have this tool to help in the event of a search is a huge relief.”

To be clear, Project Lifesaver is not a replacement for supervision in any way. Though clients don’t have to “qualify” for the program (i.e., they needn’t have wandered “x” number of times previously), they do have to be supervised by either a family member, teacher, nurse or babysitter of some sort. Clients cannot be left at home alone, mainly because if they were to go missing, no one would know.

“We don’t get an automatic notification,” Hendershot says. “A caregiver has to call 911 to alert us to their loved one’s absence.”

This is why an elderly person who still lives on their own is not an ideal client as they could be gone for multiple hours without anyone’s knowledge.

“Most of our clients have been referred to us because they have wandered and police have been called to help,” says Hendershot, who estimates that 3,000 lives have been saved as a result of this project.

Jackie Copeland, a Hendricks County resident, has a 14-year-old son named Owen. Originally diagnosed with autism, at seven he had his first seizure and was later diagnosed with a rare chromosomal disorder.

“One of the symptoms of the disorder is autism-like behaviors, which for him includes the classic desire to escape,” Copeland says. “Owen would try to find an exit anytime we were out.”

Though Copeland always keeps her doors locked and has taught her son clear boundaries, one day when he was 9 years old, he made his way onto the front porch by sliding open a bay window and climbing out. Copeland mentioned what had happened to a friend who told her about Project Lifesaver. Though Owen is verbal, his mom knows that if he were to go missing, he would likely shut down.

“A perk of the program is that they keep a personalized file of each client so they know all his quirks and what works and doesn’t work when approaching him,” Copeland says. “For instance, I was able to tell authorities not to respond with lights and sirens because Owen has sensory issues that make bright lights and loud noises upsetting.”

Some children are drawn to water. Others may have a spot they tend to gravitate to so those would be the logical first places to search. This is the type of info kept on file for each client.

The Copelands call the Project Lifesaver band Owen’s “special watch” and have taught him to never take it off. It can get wet and doesn’t interfere with everyday activities.

“When we first inquired about the program, a representative for Project Lifesaver put a band on Owen with a non-active receiver,” Copeland says. “He wore it for a month to see if he could tolerate it.”

Since these units are so expensive, it’s imperative that clients are good about not tampering with them.

Copeland appreciates having another tool to support Owen in keeping him safe.

“We want him to enjoy the highest quality of life without us worrying too much,” Copeland says. “It’s peace of mind to know that if he were to get away from us, we have something in place to expedite finding him as quickly as possible.”

Annual fundraisers not only raise money for the program but also lets folks know about the program.

“So many families could benefit from Project Lifesaver but don’t know it exists,” Hendershot says. “We want to change that.”

Copeland agrees.

“I don’t want it to be a situation where it’s too late as was the case for Shalom,” she says.

Proceeds for last year’s Project Lifesaver 5K fundraiser run went to Shalom’s hometown so that the community could start up a Project Lifesaver there. Shalom’s parents were kind enough to be on hand at the run and speak to members of Hendricks County.

“It was an emotional experience for all involved because what happened to Shalom could easily have been my child,” Copeland says. “It was very eye-opening. We just want our children to be safe.”

For more information about PLSHC or for enrollment information, visit

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