Children -- splashing, swimming and playing in the water -- were at the forefront of the festivities on Saturday, Aug. 7, at the Lifesaver Luau for Secret Safe Place for Newborns.
However, the celebration was really for the 35 children you couldn’t see.
Because of the efforts by the organization to advocate the Safe Haven Law, at least 35 abandoned newborns have been saved in Tennessee since 2004.
“The law gives young women who have hidden a pregnancy the option of leaving their baby somewhere safe instead of abandoning their babies in an unsafe place where the baby will likely die,” explained Executive Director Shannon McCloud.
The law was initiated by the organization’s founders Shawna McConnell and Lisa Yount, both of Maryville.
Ten years ago, the two moms were disturbed by media stories of “babies being found in dumpsters and backpacks and in dorm closets. It was just heartbreaking,” McConnell said. The two friends agreed that “something had to be done.”
Yount said they researched and discovered that Alabama had a Safe Haven Law allowing mothers to safely surrender their newborns without legal consequences.
“That was in May of 2000, and we didn’t know where to start,” Yount said. The following October, a baby girl was found in Townsend after her 14-year-old mother, who had concealed the pregnancy, abandoned her baby in a neighbor’s shed.
Following the local story, the two moms went into overdrive. “We had an answer to this,” Yount said.
Shelly Blair said she met McConnell and Yount at Fort Craig Elementary where the women had children in the same grade.
“They just kept at it, and they didn’t give up,” Blair said.
With the leadership and persistence of Sen. Doug Overbey, then a member of the State House of Representatives, as well as other legislators, the Safe Haven Bill was enacted in Tennessee on July 1, 2001.
Yount said, “Without him (Overbey), we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Blair said, “I’ll never forget when Shawna said, ‘We have our first baby.’ It was their first drop-off. It was very bittersweet. We were all just so glad that someone didn’t leave that baby in a shed or just dump it somewhere.”
Now McConnell said when she thinks of the 35 infants who have been safely surrendered since then, she says, “You know, that’s more than a kindergarten class.”
Along with longtime friends like Blair as well as a host of donors and sponsors for their Lifesaving Luau event, the organization is continuing fundraising efforts.
Sponsors like Sonny’s Barbeque support the event by donating all of the food and labor costs. Karla Quinn, catering and marketing manager, said the company donated an estimated $4,000 this year.
“It’s been tight, but we’re still trying to donate,” said Quinn. She said the Knoxville business has a history of supporting Secret Safe Place. “The year that we started, the owner at that point had a baby, so it hit home.”
Along with businesses, individuals in the community offer services. Adriel and Nicole McCord of Maryville support the event by providing a free DJ service and organizing games for kids.
Yount said they were hoping to raise at least $10,000 at the Luau but numbers were down this year.
The organization funds a multitude of programs and campaigns so the Safe Haven Law is more than just a piece of legislation. The organization pays for advertising campaigns and awareness programs to educate women about the Safe Haven Law.
McCloud travels throughout the state and speaks to girls in schools about the law and their 24-hour anonymous hotline, 1-866-699-SAFE, for mothers in crisis.
Vallie Collins, chairperson for the organization’s board, said, “We’re targeting middle school, high school and college girls.”
Schools and organizations can contact McCloud by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 865-254-2208.
McCloud said her work also includes supporting and assisting 24-hour medical and EMS stations where newborns can be surrendered. “I spent the summer training first responders because those folks were just added to the law last year.”
McCloud is the organization’s only employee. She received a much needed boost of energy last year during a chance encounter.
“A gentleman saw what we did and told me that his family adopted a Safe Haven baby who had been surrendered to a hospital at 2-days-old.” McCloud said she keeps in touch with the family and receives photographs of the child.
“That was a really amazing moment for me because this whole process is anonymous and confidential, so I don’t get to see the tangible benefit of our work. When I’m having a challenging day at work, I look at that little baby.”
To contribute to Secret Safe Place for Newborns efforts, donations can be given through Paypal on their website, www.secretsafeplacetn.org or by mailing donations to 1133 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville TN 37804.