LAURA DODSON | FLORIDA CATHOLIC CORRESPONDENT

Gloria Hope Lewis was named after her grandmother who also was adopted, and in honor of the firefighters who called her “Baby Hope.” “I know Gloria (A Safe Haven for Newborns founder Nick Silverio’s wife in whose memory the foundation was formed) is so pleased and smiles every time a little one is saved and a mother is assisted in her time of need or crisis,” said Nick Silverio.

It was bath time in the Lewises’ Kentucky household and mom, Lori, was on the phone with a reporter sharing her passion for protecting unwanted newborns in between encouraging her brood of four children to get ready for bed. “Would you like to speak to Gloria Hope?” she asked unexpectedly, not waiting for a reply before putting her 5-year-old daughter on the line.

“Um,” the child’s voice hesitated and then burst forth in joyous chatter. “There are roses on Mommy’s bush. School is going great. You get to color things for your mommy. I made my hands out of brown clay for Mother’s Day. They used to have pink clay, but now it’s brown. I love you,” she called out and ran off to bed.

Gloria Hope was once one of the Florida newborns who needed protection. After giving birth on Father’s Day, June 15, 2003, her 19-year-old birth mother called the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week statewide multilingual help line operated by the nonprofit A Safe Haven For Newborns. She wanted to know the location of the nearest fire station where she could take her baby because she couldn’t care for her. Firefighters received the child, transported her to the hospital where she was examined and determined to be in good health and on the very next afternoon, the baby girl was delivered along with a bouquet of six roses to Lori and Michael Lewis, soon to become her adoptive parents.

Gloria Hope was named after Lori Lewis’ mother, Gloria, and was given her middle name to honor the firefighters, who had called her “Baby Hope.”

The Lewises – although foster parents in Florida before moving to Owensboro, Ky. – were unaware of the state’s Safe Haven law enacted in July 2000, which allows parents to hand off their up-to-3-day-old infants at designated safe havens, such as staffed fire stations or hospitals, anonymously and without fear of reprisal. An enhancement of the law, approved during this year’s Florida legislative session that ended in May, is set to take effect July 1. The new version gives parents who are unwilling or unable to care for their infants seven days to give them up with impunity, and allows the names of mothers who give birth in hospitals to babies they will leave behind to be left off birth certificates.

The idea behind the legislation is to give desperate women and girls and their partners an alternative in their minds to abandoning newborns in trash bins, restrooms or on roadsides. But, although lawmakers provided the legal clearance, they did not take steps to make sure people who might be facing such crises know about the law. Nor did they create a network of safe havens at firehouses and hospitals around the state or a hot line to let struggling birth parents know where the safe havens are.

That’s all the doing of volunteers, donors, educators, emergency and health care workers and others throughout the state through A Safe Haven for Newborns, the nonprofit program founded by Nick Silverio, a parishioner at Christ the King Parish in Miami. The program, which Silverio started in memory of his wife, Gloria, who died in a 1999 car accident, now reaches all 67 Florida counties through 43 chapters. So far, 99 babies including Gloria Hope have been delivered to safe havens and are living with adoptive families.

“Every single day is another reason to praise God,” said Aja Iglesias Terrell, mom to Kristopher, a Safe Haven baby who is now 4 years old. “I don’t even look at it as an adoption. I know God planned and destined him to be in our lives from the moment of his conception.”

Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora, chief member of A Safe Haven for Newborns’ advisory board, said Silverio’s project is an outstanding example of what one person can do on behalf of life.

“Imagine the impact on the firemen when someone brings a child. He’s teaching so much about respecting life – for the parents of the children who simply cannot raise a child properly but have respect for life, for the 98 babies,” Archbishop Favalora said. “It is a great blessing and he’s a great Christian. Nick started this after his wife died. Much like Our Lord, her death brought new life into the world.”

FIREFIGHTERS, HOSPITAL WORKERS PLAY ROLE

Mark Seiferth can attest to the archbishop’s point about the impact the program has on firefighters and others who are on hand at the safe havens to accept the babies. The single, 30-year-old firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Sanford Fire Department returned to the fire station from a call at 5:30 a.m. Feb. 27, 2008, and went outside to get the newspaper. He heard a baby crying and discovered a laundry basket with a baby boy wrapped in a sheet. The law requires the parent to leave the baby with a person who works at the safe haven, so in this case the parent would not have had immunity.

“I just held him until the paramedics checked him out and then transported him to the hospital,” said Seiferth. “I was shocked, but Safe Haven is a good program. I was doing my job; it’s what I enjoy doing. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

Leesa Elliott, a pregnancy and adoption counselor at Catholic Charities in Lakeland and a parishioner at St. Joseph Parish, also was doing her job when her life was touched by a Safe Haven baby.

“In July 2007, I was called by Lakeland General Hospital and they released a baby girl, 48 hours old, into my cradle care. She was thriving immediately. The mother had gone to great lengths to get the care she needed to ensure the welfare of the baby. We offered her help, but she didn’t want anything for herself, Elliott said. “I got to attend her baptism – it was a wonderful opportunity to be a part of her welcome to our Catholic faith. It’s such a beautiful experience and you’re never the same.”

Lars White’s professional encounter with the Safe Haven program turned him into an advocate for the program throughout his community. He was the fire chief at a station in Oviedo and, although he placed a Safe Haven sign outside the station, he thought the city was “too upscale for this to happen.”

About three months after we posted the sign, a young mother showed up at 6 a.m. and said, ‘I’m here to give you my infant.’ It all worked as a success story although it could have been a tragedy. She knew nothing of the law, but had noticed our sign.”

White then was inspired to work tirelessly, ensuring other stations also had signs, developing a training program for all fire stations and did some public service announcements. He was in for another surprise when his daughter came home from high school and announced, “Dad, one of my friends saw you on the Safe Haven video.”

“That’s how I learned that we had made it into the Seminole County schools,” he said, laughing.

REACHING THE YOUNG

What the students in Seminole County and some other public schools learn about Safe Haven is, in part, the work of Holy Cross Brother Michael Brickman of Cardinal Gibbons High School in Miami. He was instrumental in developing the program, which has been approved by the bishops for inclusion in the curriculum in all the Catholic high schools in the state.

“We put the focus on our kids and their feedback was extremely positive. The freshman physical education health classes were at ease about the topic, but it must be done every year as a building program,” Brother Brickman said. “One of the girls mentioned that she had a friend who had contacted Safe Haven. Every child must be aware of this and have some way to reach out.”

Lee Condon, a parishioner at St. Margaret Parish in Monticello, also sees particular value in making sure young people know about the Safe Haven law. In her capacity with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the Tallahassee clearing house for information about crimes against children and missing children, she is able to provide information and training to a vast number of people – law enforcement personnel, medical professionals, prosecutors and social services providers – anyone who comes in contact with children.

“This gives children having babies a viable, humanitarian resource. I’ve been there – climbing into Dumpsters – afraid I was going to find a child,” Condon said.

Safe Haven advisory board member David Lawrence, a parishioner at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables and former publisher of the Miami Herald, sees spreading the word as the program’s main job.

“It’s simply public awareness – folks knowing that this is a marvelous alternative so that a young person shouldn’t make a terrible, tragic mistake. We are making sure that Nick’s message is heard every possible place.”

FRIENDS IN MANY PLACES

Those places include hospitals, crisis pregnancy centers and social service agencies.

Kirk Zeppi of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Bradenton is a licensed clinician who has operated acute care and residential psychiatric hospitals, and has been instrumental in “getting the professional industry behind this. They are so busy that they don’t have the time to understand all that’s out there, but once they do they’re invaluable.”

A registered nurse and the program administrator for Birthline/Lifeline pro-life pregnancy centers in West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, Mary Rodriguez, a parishioner at St. Mark Parish in Boynton Beach, often tells visitors about A Safe Haven for Newborns. Silverio often returns the favor.

“Nick is always trying to find a path for women who find themselves in a crisis. He called needing a translator and the woman ended up coming to the center. Nick followed up several times to make sure she was cared for,” Rodriguez said. “On the other hand, a young man called about his sister who was trying to keep her pregnancy secret from her family. We gave him the Safe Haven number and the baby was dropped off. We join in giving thanks to God. We’re all working on respect for human life.”

Mary Jo Plews is executive director of the Healthy Start Coalition for Hardy, Highland and Polk counties who learned about the project six years ago and wanted information to distribute. She is now a chapter coordinator for Safe Haven. “We are thrilled to be a partner with Nick. Everywhere we go we distribute free materials in schools, to at-risk teenagers and other social service agencies. This law allows for a mom to provide for her child and we are touched by her courage that she carried the baby to birth and provides a compassionate loving spot for that baby to be in a family that is ready for it.”

The Lewis family was definitely ready for Gloria Hope.

“All tummy mommies need to know this story,” Lori Lewis said. Gloria Hope’s tummy mommy wrote why she did what she did and thanked us for loving her flesh and blood. She said so many beautiful things. Her heart is awesome and someday Gloria Hope will know how much she is loved.”

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