When Diann Henderson’s 15-year-old grandson went missing Sunday night, she jumped in the car and started driving – and praying. Her grandson has autism, and a habit of wandering off.
“I’m one of those old-fashioned grandmothers, so I’ll ride until I find him,” Henderson said.
When relatives realized the boy was gone, they called the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. It took only a few minutes for deputies to track him because of a locator worn around his ankle, as part of Project Lifesaver.
Officers found the teenager at a convenience store not far from his home in the 1800 block of Woodsboro Drive off Broad River Road northwest of Columbia. The search took place at about 9:30 p.m., according to the sheriff’s department.
Project Lifesaver outfits people at risk of wandering – such as those with autism, Down syndrome or Alzheimer’s – with electronic tracking devices.
“These kids, they get lost quick,” Henderson said. “You don’t know where they are. You don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Anything could happen to them – and I don’t want that to happen to my grandson or anybody else’s child.”
In addition to keeping young people safe, the program is good for elderly folks, Henderson said.
Project Lifesaver has been in place at the sheriff’s department since 2007, according to deputy Amanda Jordan, who said that 30 people are wearing the bracelets now. “It’s an awesome program,” Jordan said. “Our motto is ‘Bringing our loved ones home,’ so that really says a lot about the program.”
Jordan said the program saves manpower and money by requiring fewer deputies than a traditional search, and finding wanderers more quickly.
The sheriff’s department pays $300 for each tracking bracelet, as well as $120 per year to replace each bracelet’s band and battery on a regular schedule, Jordan said. But citizens aren’t charged anything. Anyone who lives in Richland County, even if they’re inside the city of Columbia or another municipality, may apply for the program.
Throughout South Carolina, 16 counties offer the program, Jordan said.
The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department is about to launch the program and is training deputies on how to use the equipment, sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Adam Myrick said. The Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office does not use the program due to lack of funding, Sheriff Jim Matthews said.
This is the second time Richland deputies have had to use Project Lifesaver since it launched almost a decade ago, Jordan said. The first time was in March with another autistic child.
Sheriff Leon Lott said the program is a proven method of keeping people safe. “It saves people’s lives,” Lott said. “Too many times, we’ve lost young people that have got mental issues ... because we haven’t been able to find them quick enough.”
Ardelia McDaniel, the 15-year-old’s mother, worried her son would be one of those lost. “My son used to wander all the time, and I used to break down and cry, because I didn’t know if he was going to come back safely,” McDaniel said.
The boy has been wearing a Project Lifesaver bracelet about 2 1/2 years, McDaniel said.
Now, her son is wandering less, McDaniel said. She thinks he realizes it’s not just his mom and grandmother who will be out looking for him, but deputies as well.
“He knows I have another team behind me to come get him,” McDaniel said.
PROJECT LIFESAVER AT A GLANCE
▪ 30 Richland County citizens wearing trackers
▪ 3,141 people found in searches across the United States
▪ 100 percent success rate nationally
▪ Founded in Chesapeake, Va., in 1999
Source: Richland County Sheriff’s Department