BY CAIRRIL MILLS
It was a dark and cold February night in 2012 when Carrie Shahbahrami’s then three-year-old daughter, Sophie, slipped out of the house. Sophie has autism and is non-verbal. “It was terrifying,” says Shahbahrami, describing her family’s desperate search. “I wasn’t even thinking. I was panicked.” Sophie was eventually found by a neighbor — she had been attracted by a dog across a busy street — but the incident motivated Shahbahrami to search for a way to keep her daughter, and others like her, safe.
After doing some research, and with the help of Van Buren Township Fire Department (VBTFD) Lieutenant Paul Ford, Shahbahrami created a local branch of Project Lifesaver (PLS), a national nonprofit based in Chesapeake, Virginia. It supplies wanderers, such as those with developmental disorders or Alzheimer’s disease, with secure, waterproof transmitters (worn around the wrist or ankle) that send out radio signals every two minutes. In a crisis, caregivers can call 911 and the call is routed to first responders supplied with receivers, which guide them to the wanderer. According to PLS, the average recovery time is 30 minutes with the transmitters, 95 percent less time than in standard recovery operations.
“My daughter is functionally non-verbal so if you say, ‘Sophie, where are you?’ she doesn’t say, ‘I’m here,” says Shahbahrami. “A person with Alzheimer’s may not remember their name anymore. So their transmitter is sort of their voice. It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m here.’”
Shahbahrami was recently recognized with a City of Bloomington Volunteer Network Be More Award for her efforts. A part-time nurse and full-time mother, she says she spends about 20 hours a week volunteering with Project Lifesaver. She helps with marketing, fundraising, and outreach. She also goes into homes and schools to change the batteries in transmitters every 60 days, makes referrals to social service agencies for families in need, and provides emotional support to Project Lifesaver families.
“It’s not necessarily a glamorous organization,” she says. “It’s in the trenches trying to save someone’s life. It doesn’t have to be pretty. We’re making a difference and that’s what counts.”
Learn more by visiting the group’s Facebook page: Monroe County Project Lifesaver, Managed by VBTFD.