JEFFERSON — In January of 2022, Sheriff B. Phil Howell, DSS Director Tracie McMillan and Randy Rhodes stood before the Ashe County Board of Commissioners with hearts full of compassion, asking for the approval of something the state of North Carolina had never seen before; a Safe Haven Baby Box. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, the project came to fruition at the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office with a special dedication and blessing.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes are a way for mothers, or fathers, to safely and anonymously surrender their baby if they feel they do not have the means to take care of and raise them. A number of infants are abandoned after birth, often times in a place where they cannot receive the proper care they need. The baby boxes provide an effective way to surrender a child and ensure both their safety and well-being. Overall, there are 127 Baby Boxes across the nation.
Once a baby is placed in the blanketed, heated and camera monitored box, the door will lock and an alarm will ring in the 911 dispatch center. Once the door is open, three phone calls are made immediately to the Sheriff’s Office 911 Center, Ashe Department of Social Services and Ashe Memorial Hospital. In less than 60 seconds, an official will retrieve the child from the box and they will then be transported to AMH or handed to a DSS worker. Each baby will be examined for any injuries and their well-being will be assessed. No cameras are placed outside of the box which keeps the identity of the parent anonymous.
After the approval from the BOC, plans were underway to construct the box at the Sheriff’s Office. Funding for the box began shortly after and was 100 percent received by donations. A goal of $25,000 was set and in a swift amount of time, the goal was met with the help of churches, businesses, individuals and more. Badges of Ashe led the receiving of donations and Howell said that this could not have been made possible without them.
“We started receiving donations on Jan. 26 of this year,” said Badges of Ashe President Michele Baldwin. “By Feb. 14, we had reached our first goal of $10,000. By May 5, we reached our $25,000 goal. As of now, we have raised $29,495.46.”
The idea of a box in Ashe County was lead by Rhodes, who stated that it would become a symbol of hope, not just for the county, but for the country as a whole.
“We stand in front of, what I think, is the world’s first ‘hope machine,’” said Rhodes. “This machine, used properly, gives hope to everyone it effects. It gives hope to the person giving the child up and that they can maybe turn their life around. It gives hope to the child and that it can be taken care of. It also gives hope to people who wish to adopt. We hang our hat on hope.”
In total, 21 infants have been placed in a Baby Box since 2017. Nationwide, 125 surrenders have resulted from calling the National Safe Haven Baby Box hotline. Seven Safe Haven Baby Box surrenders have occurred so far this year. Safe Haven Baby Boxes are currently available in Indiana, Ohio, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico and now North Carolina.
In getting the box to the county, Safe Haven Baby Boxes founder Monica Kelsey worked closely with the ACSO, McMillan, Rhodes and County Manager Adam Stumb.
Kelsey was abandoned herself as an infant after her birth mother was sexually assaulted. Her mission is to make sure babies get the chance to be surrendered safely and taken care of during the most crucial part of their lives.
“Ashe County, well done,” said Kelsey during the dedication. “This is a first for the state. 150 women and 150 children have been impacted by an idea that I had back in 2013. I was in Cape Town, South Africa when I saw the first baby safe. As a firefighter and a medic, I’ve always known about the Safe Haven law, but I wondered why we didn’t have these in America. I knew that a woman can walk into any fire station or hospital and surrender their child, but I had never seen anything like this box.”
When Kelsey was returning to the US from Cape Town, she hand drew her version of the baby box on the back of a napkin. She started an “uphill battle” in getting people to understand that a baby going into one of the boxes is much better than finding one abandoned in a dumpster. She stated that she is honored everyday that a woman chooses to safely, legally, lovingly and anonymously surrender their baby in the box.
“A woman found out she was pregnant and gave birth in April of 1973,” Kelsey said “She abandoned her child two hours after it was born and that child was me. I stand on the front lines of this movement. I wasn’t safely, lovingly and legally surrendered, but today, Ashe County, you are way ahead of the curve. You are now offering that to women in this community so no one has to walk alone.”
The box was first prayed over by Pastor Steve Ashley and then by Pastor John Elledge. Additional speakers included Audrey Bishop, representing the office of Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and McMillan, who shed light on the Safe Haven law and the importance of safe surrender.
Howell thanked everyone who donated, the BOC for their approval, Rhodes for his idea, Ashe Memorial Hospital and Ashe Medics for their cooperation and partnership, Badges of Ashe, Vannoy Construction for building the box and anyone who helped in the project.
“We are Ashe proud today,” said Howell. “We are a catalyst across the state. We are a catalyst for other agencies, entities, fire departments and townships. In the end, if one baby is saved and ends up on the coast, we can say we helped save that baby’s life.”
At the end of the dedication, a special ribbon cutting was held by the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce and guests were able to take a look at the box.
The box is located at the front entry of the ACSO.