Isabella Harmon and Tori Hemmerlein saw a more than year-long project come to fruition Thursday.
The Jasper Middle School students’ efforts were celebrated during the unveiling of a Safe Haven Baby Box in Ferdinand. The baby box located at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center’s Ferdinand Ambulance Station, 202 E. 3rd Street, provides a safe place for a mother in crisis to leave her baby.
Indiana’s 2000 Safe Haven Law allows a parent to anonymously surrender their healthy newborn without fear of criminal prosecution at any fire station, police station, or hospital as long as the child appears to be 30 days or less and unharmed. The Safe Haven Baby Box is a final resource for women in crisis who want 100 percent anonymity to ensure a safe surrender of their baby.
Isabella became interested in the project after hearing about the baby boxes from her parents, Toby and Sheila Harmon, who learned about it at a parish meeting last year. Isabella and Tori have been best friends since they are about seven years old. Their families are friends as well.
“I think we were discussing the need for more Safe Haven Baby Boxes at dinner,” Isabella said. “And we just kinda felt maybe this is something we could help out with.”
The idea struck home for Tori. She was born in central China and her mother had abandoned her on the steps to the emergency room soon after her birth. This was lucky for Tori who was found quickly.
Her journey to Dubois County came about through the efforts of her parents, Sandy and Jason Hemmerlein, who sought out an international adoption.
“When the Harmons told us about this (Safe Haven) box, I immediately connected it back to my story and I felt it would be cool if I could help an infant in the same situation,” the 14-year-old explained.
After deciding to pursue the project, the girls began to meet with community organizations to pitch the idea and hopefully gain some support. This led to a meeting with Memorial Hospital who immediately saw the benefit of the project.
“The opportunity for Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center to support the presence of a Safe Haven Baby Box in our service area aligns with our mission as we care for the communities we serve, and we are thankful to be part of this wonderful initiative,” said E. Kyle Bennett, president and CEO of Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center. “We know our collective efforts will have been worth it if one child’s life is saved.”
A child had been brought to the hospital a few years ago. In addition to the boxes, the Safe Haven organization maintains a website and toll free number for a parent in crisis to call for help. It was through these resources that a desperate woman in our community was directed to Memorial Hospital.
Monica Kelsey, the founder and director of Safe Haven Baby Boxes, spoke about the incident at Thursday’s unveiling. The parent had called Safe Haven desperate to surrender her child.
“There was no baby boxes in this community,” Kelsey explained. “We coached this parent to go to a medical facility and surrender this child under the Indiana State Safe Haven law. And that child was legally surrendered and is here with us today. I’m so proud that this child was not only safe but given a purpose.”
Kelsey started the organization after learning about her own past. Her mother was brutally attacked and raped and left on the side of the road. Six weeks later she found out she was pregnant. This was in 1972, before abortion was legal, so Kelsey’s mother went to a “back alley abortion facility” where she found she couldn’t go forward with having her baby aborted.
According to Kelsey, her mother left the abortion facility, continued the pregnancy but abandoned her two hours after she was born.
“I am still a human being and I still have value. My life is not worthless simply because of the way I was conceived and I didn’t deserve the death penalty for the crime of my biological father,” she said.
Kelsey learned about her story as an adult and decided to do something for other potentially abandoned babies. She had seen similar boxes being used in a church in Cape Town, South Africa and made it her personal mission to save innocent babies by bringing the boxes to communities and providing help to parents in crisis.
The organization was formed and began installing boxes in 2016. Since then they have received more than 4,000 calls from parents seeking help and nine infants — five so far in 2020 — have been surrendered in baby boxes.
The National Safe Haven Hotline phone number is 1-866-992-2291 (1-866-99BABY1) and a listing of boxes can be found here.
Ferdinand is the 46th box the organization has installed.
“We can’t judge those who might also have to use this box but we’d rather be thankful they have this option,” Tori said. “Thanks again to all those who have made this baby box project possible in Dubois County.”