For families with autistic children or a family member with dementia, having a loved one go missing is a nightmare.
Roughly half of children with autism “attempt to elope from a safe environment,” the National Autism Association said, while the Alzheimer’s Association said that six in 10 people with dementia will wander.
Now a nonprofit group, the Putnam Project Lighthouse, provides GPS tracking devices — in the form of bracelets — to people with a history of wandering.
Leigh Merryday Porch is a blogger, mother and founder of Project Lighthouse. Her 6-year-old son, Callum, has classic autism and has a tendency to elope, or leave his safe area.
“I probably receive at least two links per week regarding autistic children and adults who’ve wandered,” Porch said.
Porch’s family has been touched three times by autism, and she started the program to protect her son and others like him. The fact that it can also be used to help dementia and Alzheimer’s patients is a huge bonus, she said.
The Putnam Project Lighthouse is a member of Project Lifesaver International, which has been a leader in tracking technology for 17 years. They officially launched on Tuesday with the support of the Putnam County School Board, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, the Sunrise Rotary of Palatka and others. During the event, 6-year-old Callum was the first to receive a bracelet, followed by another child named Jayden Brown.
An estimated 2,100 Putnam residents, including children with autism and adults with dementia, might benefit from the program, said Porch.
The equipment provided by Project Lighthouse comes in two programs. One is a transmitter program recommended for nonverbal clients.
“If the wearer goes missing, 911 sends deputies out with a receiver that will locate the client,” Porch said.
The second option is a GPS program that is tethered to a cell phone. This option is recommended for clients who may be more mobile, such as those with dementia who may be driving.
Depending on the program a person enrolls in, the device can cost between $250 and $300. For families who can’t afford a device, Project Lighthouse will hold fundraisers.
With the help of the Sunrise Rotary of Palatka, Project Lighthouse will do the first of two rib sales beginning Dec. 11, with another scheduled for the spring. The sales should bring in approximately $10,000, said Porch. Project Lighthouse has also received a grant from The Heal Foundation for $2,000.
The U.S. Department of Justice also gave them $5,000 for start-up money.
In 2014, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York asked the Justice Department to expand one of their grant programs to help bring Project Lifesaver to a law enforcement agency in need. This was prompted by the death of Avonte Oquendo, an autistic teen who died as a result of wandering.
For Amanda Brown, the mother of 7-year-old Jayden who received Project Lighthouse’s second device, the bracelet has meant greater peace of mind.
While she said she’s not planning on taking her eyes off her son for even a second, the bracelet is an extra blanket of security. Her son is not bothered by the bracelet, Brown said.
“It hasn’t really impacted him at all,” she said. “He kinda fiddled with it when he first got it, but it’s like it’s not even there anymore.”