Tracy Marr begins each day grateful for the peace of mind knowing her 26-year-old son, Jared, is safe, knowing that if he wanders too far, she has reliable backup, thanks to Operation Lost & Found (OLF). An OLF client for more than six years, Jared wears a special wrist bracelet with a tracking device.
While he has never really wandered much, Jared has given Tracy, his sole caregiver, a couple of scares, like one afternoon last summer.
“He goes to the gym three days a week,” Tracy said, “and I drop him off, go to work and come back to pick him up a little later. He has never left the gym, he always sits and waits for me. That particular day, when I went in to get him, I couldn’t find him and started to panic. When I asked at the front desk, they said he had walked outside a little while ago. I went outside and started screaming his name, telling myself not to panic, to take a deep breathe, that I could call 911 and that OLF would find him. And then I spotted him sitting in my other vehicle, which was parked outside Sierra Automotive for repair. The windows were rolled up and it was 105 degrees. Thankfully, he wasn’t sitting there long.”
Jared suffers from permanent brain damage and poor memory because of a devastating solo vehicle accident in the wee morning hours after attending his 2008 commencement ceremonies and Sober Grad night. His plans post high school graduation included attending Clovis Community College as a stepping stone to achieve his dream of becoming an English teacher.
However, that night in June, his plans and life changed dramatically.
Jared had just dropped his girlfriend off before heading home from Yosemite Lakes Park, when he dozed at the wheel and went off Road 415. In a semi-coma for four months, it was unknown whether Jared would ever walk or talk again, and from June 12 through December, he spent more time hospitalized than at home.
When he did come out of his coma, the first words out of his mouth were, “When do I get to start college?”
With tremendous family support and encouragement, Jared was able to begin online college classes in January of 2009, while doing physical and occupational therapy on an outpatient basis at Valley Children’s Hospital.
Today, he’s enrolled at Oakhurst Community College Center. And while he clung to his dream of teaching English all these years, Jared just received news from the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) that he will never teach because of his poor memory.
“Jared said he was okay with the news,” Tracy said, “but as soon as we got home, he went straight to his room. He was a brainiac, was even taking trig in high school, so I’m sure it hurts and he’s trying to process it on his own ... He understands that this is just a part of life that we have to get through, and tells me he doesn’t want to talk about painful things because he doesn’t want to stress me out.”
As far as the DOR is concerned, once he completes his computer concepts class in May, Jared will have gone as far as he can in college. He will then study bookkeeping online with the goal of becoming certified so he can work in a small business.
About Operation Lost & Found
Even though Tracy had heard of OLF, she didn’t know Jared would qualify, believing it was reserved for the elderly suffering from dementia. While the program was originally geared to those with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it quickly expanded to include autistic and brain-damaged clientele.
Currently, there are 12 OLF technicians covering Madera County, with Jared falling under the watchful eye of Lead Technician Don Morrill, who, with a team of four, covers Oakhurst. He has been an OLF volunteer for eight years, and a Madera County Search & Rescue volunteer for 11.
“I see clients once a month to change batteries and make sure everything is working correctly,” Morrill said, “and I’ve been taking care of Jared since 2010. One day when I went to see him to change the battery in his wrist band, he seemed distant and non-responsive, so I asked him if he knew who I was. He said without hesitation, ‘You’re Don,’ and it made my heart flutter. It was the first time he had ever said my name. Before that, I didn’t know how aware he was, and then I knew ... he just keeps growing by leaps and bounds.”
Former Madera County Sheriff John Anderson started the program in 2004, after a 54-year-old Coarsegold woman, suffering from severe dementia, went missing. Hundreds of sheriff personnel, as well as search and rescue members from seven counties, unsuccessfully combed the woods and heavy brush within a wide perimeter. The woman’s remains were found eight months later, about a mile from her home.
Offered to Madera County residents, OLF is underwritten by area businesses, churches, service clubs, and veterans groups. The way the program works is that the Madera County Sheriff’s Office keeps a photo, along with pertinent client information, on file. The client wears a wrist bracelet with a personal transmitter (Jared teased that his transmits hard rock music), and if a client wanders off, the sheriff’s office is notified and emergency crews respond with a mobile locator to the location where the person was last seen. Using radio frequency, the unit can work within a one-mile radius at ground level, and at a five-mile radius by helicopter.
Getting the word out
Jared is so impressed with the program and the comforting sense of security it gives both he and his mom that he recently gave a speech in his Communications class.
“A young Autistic boy, a middle-aged man with depression, and a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s,” he began, “What do they all have in common? They all lived in Eastern Madera County, they all wandered off and were subjects of extensive searches, and they all died before they were found ... Today, thanks to OLF, these scenarios are not likely to happen again.”
This was a good way for Jared to get the word out about a program some, who could benefit, have little knowledge of.
“His classmates were coming up to him after class to ask questions,” Tracy said. “One told him she knew someone with a 6-year-old Autistic child and what a tremendous help this program would be. The public doesn’t understand that this is not just a program for the elderly.”
A bill sits before Congress - the Kevin and Avonte’s Law of 2016 - which, if passed, would direct the Bureau of Justice Assistance (under the umbrella of the Department of Justice) to award grants to state and local law enforcement or public safety agencies for tracking technology programs that locate missing individuals with dementia or children with developmental disabilities.
Across the nation, states would have similar programs with client information crossing state lines, which would make travel for Tracy and Jared more conceivable. Presently, should Jared become lost in Fresno, there would be no way to track him.
An unwavering faith
“We have been very blessed by this town from day one,” Tracy said, “and wouldn’t have gotten to where we are without this community. We have some bad days, but God is good. I had a dream four years before Jared had his accident, and I clearly heard Jesus tell me ‘you will not watch your son die.’ So when he was in ICU all those weeks, hemorrhaging and having seizures ... when the doctor told me that he would have to cut out part of his brain, making him a vegetable, or I could leave him as he was and he would die in 30 days, I responded, ‘you’re not cutting out part of his brain, and he’s not going to die. This I know from the highest authority.’”
Until recently, Jared’s friends were made up of his family and Tracy’s friends. Over the years, his high school friends have faded away one-by-one.
However, Tracy and Jared have been spending time with Haley Phillips, who was in a coma for several weeks following an accident last year on Highway 41. Her injuries included severe head trauma and brain swelling.
“We’ve been working with her and her family, which has been good for Jared,” Tracy said. “Now he has someone he can visit with who also has an injury.”
Up to 122 clients have been registered with OLF since its inception, and currently, there are about 16 in Madera County utilizing the service.
“We have had a huge success rate with OLF,” Morrill added. “We have always found those who have wandered off in a timely manner, and all have been found safe. It’s a little bit of an insurance program for the caregiver. As for Jared, it’s a pleasure to see him every month. He has such a good sense of humor and positive outlook.”
“Don is a kind man and I enjoy our visits,” Jared said. “And I’m very happy I have this bracelet (pointing to his wrist) in case I do become confused.”
OLF applications and details: Sergeant Joe Wilder at (559) 675-7770, or OLF Team Leader Mike Perreira at (559) 658-6311.
For details on the bill, see S.2614 - 114th Congress (2015-2016): Kevin and Avonte's Law of 2016.