COLUMBUS, Ind. — Columbus North student Hunter Wart was riding with his mother to school one morning when he heard Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Box, come on the radio to talk about the infants saved by her anonymity providing baby boxes.
There was no hesitation as Hunter suddenly knew exactly what he wanted his senior project to be.
“That, mom,” he announced to Julie Kwasniewski, “that’s what I want to do.”
Since May of 2017, Hunter has been hard at work – cutting grass, collecting cans and scrapping metal – to raise every dime toward his $10,000 goal to install a Safe Haven Baby Box at one of Columbus Fire Department’s fire stations.
The senior from Hope, Indiana, hasn’t asked for handouts or monetary donations, he’s only sweated and worked toward his goal with elbow grease.
“He’s worked his tail end off,” Julie said.
But after nearly a year of raising money through manual labor in order to fund his dream of a baby box for Columbus, the city recently announced they were declining Hunter’s offer to have the Safe Haven Baby Box installed in one of their fire stations – despite no cost to them.
“After careful consideration and research by City staff, the Columbus Fire Department Administration and staff, and discussion with medical providers, the Columbus Fire Department has chosen not to enter into a contract with the Safe Haven Baby Box Company,” said Columbus Fire Department Captain Mike Wilson in a statement.
“While we fully support the local high school student’s efforts to complete a required senior project, the proposed project does not align with the Columbus Fire Department’s current medical care standards regarding the Indiana Safe Haven Law,” said Wilson.
According to the release, these standards include not only providing care for the surrendered infant, but providing medical care and emotional support for the parent who is choosing to surrender the infant.
“The Safe Haven Baby Box surrender would not allow us the opportunity to immediately address medical or emotional conditions as the parent may leave the area before our medically trained personnel would have an opportunity to conduct a rapid assessment. This may be critical if the infant was born in an out-of-hospital environment,” Wilson said.
While Indiana Safe Haven Law allows first responders to accept an infant with no questions asked from a parent, Wilson added the surrendering parent providing information such as the child’s health, race, date of birth, place of birth or the medical history of the parents could be very useful in caring for the infant or assisting Department of Child Service caseworkers with parent/ infant reunification at a later time, as allowed by the law.
But anonymity and not surrendering the infant in-person to someone who may know, recognize or judge the surrendering parent is one of the main cruxes of the Safe Haven Baby Box’s mission.
Founded by Monica Kelsey, who herself was abandoned as an infant, Safe Haven Baby Box’s mission is to ensure unwanted children aren’t left abandoned in some out-of-sight or out-of-mind corner due to the parents’ fear of judgment, shame or blame.
Taking advantage of the Safe Haven Law, these anonymous boxes allow parents to surrender their infants into temperature controlled, alarm-equipped boxes which notify authorities the moment an infant is deposited in them so responders can quickly find the abandoned infant in a safe, controlled location while granting the surrendering parent anonymity so they won’t be too frightened to deliver the newborn in-person to a safe haven location.
In just the past 12 months, Kelsey said three babies have been saved in Indiana thanks to the six different active boxes in the Hoosier state.
While the six fire stations in Columbus are designated Safe Haven facilities where firefighters and first responders are trained to accept newborns, Kelsey stressed the danger of dismissing the anonymity the Safe Haven Baby Box’s provide.
“Woman that contact us want anonymity,” Kelsey stressed, disagreeing with Columbus’s procedure which calls for a “warm hand-off” of the newborn, which requires someone in-person to hand over the child.
“Their logic is tainted,” Kelsey warned, adding the women who would consider surrendering a newborn in the first place could easily be frightened off by the prospect of arriving in a place where someone would see and potentially recognize them.
By stripping away anonymity, infants are at risk, she said as the nearest Safe Haven Baby Boxes to Columbus are North Vernon and Decatur Township.
“It could be a baby in the dumpster because of their decision,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey’s disappointment in Columbus extends to how the city handled the situation, claiming Columbus took four months before announcing they were declining the offer of the baby box.
This delay jeopardizes Hunter’s goal to have the box installed somewhere by the time he graduates this spring.
“Whatever we have to do to make this happen, we’ll make this happen,” Kelsey said, set on making sure Hunter’s hard work still pays off.
“This kid needs an award. We don’t have adults who would do this,” she added.
Hunter’s mother Julie said the reason Hunter took so strongly to the cause of the Safe Haven Baby Box was not only because of how close his heart is to the matter of infants– Hunter being the oldest of 13 siblings, but tragically losing his youngest as a stillborn – but because of how the mission reflects his overall view on life.
“He believes that all life is precious,” Julie said.
A hard worker who doesn’t let either his ADHS or Asperger’s slow him down, Julie said when Hunter sets his mind to something, there isn’t any changing it.
“His efforts have not been for no reason,” Julie said.
His efforts won’t go unrewarded, either. While Columbus may have declined the offer of a free Safe Haven Baby Box, other nearby communities are more than happy to accept the potentially lifesaving gift.
According to Kelsey, multiple fire departments – all within a 50 mile radius of Columbus – have already reached out expressing their desire to be the recipient of Hunter’s senior project.
Not just that, but several people have already offered to cover whatever money Hunter needs raised by the due date as well.
“For us, this isn’t a setback,” Kelsey said, adding she believes the only setback is for the city of Columbus and the women who live there.
“He will get his box,” Julie said.
Columbus Fire Department may not have agreed with the Safe Haven Baby Box method, they did wish Hunter the best and appreciated their local student’s dedication.
“The Columbus Fire Department commends the efforts of the high school student for meeting the requirement of the student’s project. Although our department has declined to install the box in our facility, we fully believe that the student has brought awareness of the Indiana Safe Haven Law to our community and region,” Wilson said.
Hunter may never know it, but Kelsey said once his Safe Haven Baby Box is installed in another fire department outside Columbus a woman and a child who may never know his name or see his face will be thankful for every can collected and every blade of grass he’s chopped down.
And closer to home, his actions have already touched another heart who seeks to continue Hunter’s mission – Hunter’s own younger brother.
Seeing his older sibling’s efforts, Julie said Hunter’s 12-year-old brother recently exclaimed, “Momma, I want to do one of these for my senior project too!”
Julie told him to start collecting cans now on his way to installing baby box number eight in Indiana.