Donald Hudson and Sheldon Bell were two sons present at Zachary City Hall on a recent Saturday, when local families took proactive measures in case they are ever the focus of an at-risk missing persons search.
Sheldon is a special-needs child being registered by his mother, and Hudson is a concerned son registering his elderly mother.
Sheldon’s mother, Nina Bell, filled out the needed paperwork as Sheldon marveled in the lights and Christmas decorations. His sweet innocence is only rivaled by his vulnerability to harm if he is ever lost or if someone attempts to take advantage of him. Luckily, for him, all that matters as he is registered is the size of the city’s tree and the awesome bright lights.
Hudson is quiet in comparison. He holds a stunning photo of his elderly mother and enters vital information onto a form that he hopes is never used. Hudson is motivated by Zachary’s recent worst-case-scenario Welton “Wick” Pierce, an elderly Zachary resident drove his truck from his home and was never seen alive again.
Hudson said he feels family members should be proactive and prepared. “We need to help to bring awareness to the need for elderly people to be registered and to be able to get out word really quick,” he said.
Both families are now a part of Z.I.P., the Zachary Identification Program. The program is an initiative of the Zachary Police Department to address the needs of seniors and special-needs children, but it also extends to anyone who wants the extra precautions for themselves or a loved one.
Police Sgt. Justin Nevels said the effort starts with the police department but will encompass a village of first responders and organizations. “There's going to be an interdepartmental collaboration, and people will have access to the information in the database 24/7,” he said. “It's going to work both ways. If you have a missing person and you need to identify them, you can look in the database. But if someone presents present, and they are at risk, and they we can’t identify them, then you can look for them. This helps when a family has lost either a senior elderly or a special needs child."
The need for the program is clear for the Zachary Police Department. Pierce’s family reported he suffered from possible dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Later, a multiagency search effort to find Pierce extended from Zachary to out of the state. Almost a year after Pierce disappeared, his remains were found in in Adams County, Mississippi.
Nevels can’t begin to forecast how events would unfold if an elderly person is reported missing again, but he does know proactive steps have been taken. “Obviously, we want to have the information,” he said. “They can call and say ‘hey, dad's missing we can automatically go and pull up his file.'”
If that person has been registered in the Z.I.P. database, the department will know a diagnosis if any and information on vehicles. “This isn't necessarily something that can prevent it from happening, but the information can be there to assist us in locating much faster than the family having to go and locate this information for us,” Nevels said. “The NCIC is very specific, that's the state and national database that we use for the silver alerts and things of that nature.”
At-risk seniors are not the only Z.I.P. focus. During the aftermath of the recent Lake Charles-area hurricanes, a displaced special-needs youngster was separated from his family. Nevels immediately reached out to Zachary High’s special education instructor Jamie Byrd. Byrd had the experience and background to help lessen the trauma of the student while also helping with communication.
Byrd said she had prior experience and one of her students has wandered away from home several times. “Luckily, we know his favorite spot to run to is Bronco stadium,” she said. “But other cases aren’t always that easy.”
The high school curriculum helps prepare students with special needs for life after high school, Byrd said. They learn personal information and job skills. “I can understand them, but people who do not work with them daily may not,” she said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for these students and adults to stay as safe as possible.”
Byrd said she thinks Z.I.P. will help ease parents’ minds. “Parents constantly think of worst-case scenarios and try to plan for that,” she said. “Also, it’s great to know that first responders will have all the medical information needed on hand for medically fragile cases. We are Zachary and we are just trying to prepare and help for all individuals as one part of our mission.”
For information or to register someone in Z.I.P., contact Nevels at the Zachary Police Department.