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Virginia Program Helps Find Mentally Impaired People

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By REBECCA MARTINEZ The News Leader

STAUNTON, Va. (AP) Keith Smith is a chatty 16-year-old who likes watching TV, playing with his puppy and volunteering with Meals on Wheels. Imagine his concern when he found himself at the Staunton Police Department one night recently; he thought he was in trouble.

Keith is autistic, and his tendency to wander has become a problem, his mother, Marsha Smith, said. Staunton Police have had to look for him on more than one occasion. They once picked him up with his dog at Grubert Avenue after he wandered from his home on Robinhood Road. "I was ... terrified," she said, adding that she was eager to find a way to prevent Keith from getting lost in the first place.

During Keith's police station visit, he was met by a smiling Officer D.A. Britt, who fastened a plastic bracelet with a small LoJack radio transmitter onto Keith's left wrist. He became the first participant in Staunton's Project Lifesaver program, part of a nationwide network of emergency response teams that can locate missing people with autism, Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other mental impairments, who wear special tracking bracelets.

Project Lifesaver started in the Chesapeake Sheriff's Office in 1999 and has since spread to emergency squads around the country. The organization, which provides tracking bracelets and trains emergency responders, boasts that 100 percent of participants who go missing are recovered.

Augusta County already has a Project Lifesaver program, but because they're Staunton residents, Marsha and Keith Smith were ineligible to participate. In May, the National Alzheimer's Association awarded a $6,800 grant to the Staunton Police Department to fund its program.

Officer Britt has helped search for a wandering Keith in the past and said he's glad the Smiths have access to the program, adding other families in the area have expressed interest in Project Lifesaver. "Hopefully it's never used, but it's just there in case [the bracelet wearers] do wander or ... bolt away," Britt said. "It's something law enforcement can definitely use when it does happen."

Rockingham County's Project Lifesaver program has been in place for more than a decade, said Sheriff Don Farley, and while there never have been more than five or six participants at a time, he said he's seen the program's value in the peace of mind it gives caregivers. He also said the network of participating departments allows families to move about more freely. For example, Farley said, if a family decides to vacation in Virginia Beach and notifies the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office, Farley can contact the Chesapeake Sheriff's Office, which could then respond in case of emergency.

Keith Smith's Project Lifesaver bracelet is a white plastic band with a plastic oval device attached to it. It looks like a watch without a face, and Keith has decorated it with star stickers. "I need the lucky stars because they're lucky," he said, showing off his newly decorated accessory. His mother said she's "relieved" the bracelet's on him. She thinks he won't have trouble keeping it on because he's already accustomed to wearing a watch. Plus, she encourages him to remember his bracelet is special, and not everybody "gets" to wear one.

She's already begun checking the battery and transmission of his bracelet, which she'll do daily. Once a month, Officer Britt will come to their house to change the band and battery. Marsha said she's been in touch with Waynesboro's City Council about setting up its own Project Lifesaver program. She hopes they'll work it out, saying she'll feel more at ease knowing Waynesboro police will know how to respond if Keith goes missing there. She said, "At least I know if he gets lost I've just got one number to call."

Information from: The Daily News Leader, http://www.newsleader.com

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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