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S.C. EMS worker devotes life to keeping kids safe

Robert White was honored for his nonprofit Safe Kids York County, where he helps host more than 200 events and programs for car seat, gun, bicycle and water safety

From his office window at Piedmont Medical Center EMS in Rock Hill, S.C., Robert White can see a series of stones nestled in the grass, each engraved with the name of a child who died from traumatic injury.

There are markers for 10-year-old Spencer Lee and 11-year-old Larell Huey, killed when the car a relative was driving veered off the road. Neither boy was wearing a seatbelt. There are markers for children who drowned, who were killed by drunk drivers, and the victims of child abuse and suicide.

When I look out there today, I can see a little toy truck laid on one of the stones, and a cross and a candle on another,” said White, community relations coordinator for Piedmont Medical Center EMS, which provides 911 medical response to York County.

“When families come visit the stones, I give them a few minutes for their quiet time. Then I go out, meet them and talk to them,” he said. “The first time I met the dad of one of the little girls, he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Thank you for remembering my child. Thank you for advocating for children.’ He pulled $200 out of his wallet and handed it to me. He said, ‘I want you to do something in honor of my child.’”<

For White, moments like those have inspired a career dedicated to preventing injuries and accidental deaths among children from preventable causes. The memorial garden is one component of Safe Kids York County, a nonprofit organization led by White.

His team at Piedmont Medical Center EMS and a cadre of community volunteers host more than 200 events each year related to car seat safety, gun safety, bicycle safety and drowning prevention. In February, their efforts were recognized when Piedmont Medical Center EMS received the Nicholas Rosecrans Award, given annually to an EMS agency that demonstrates leadership, commitment and innovation in preventing accidental death and injury to children.

“Preventable injuries are the number one killer of kids. We are the men and women responding to these emergencies. Our goal should be education and prevention,” White said. “Every EMT and paramedic needs to take a proactive role in injury prevention and coaching people on what to do until the ambulance arrives, whether it’s how to do CPR or how to stop bleeding.”

The award, presented annually at the EMS Today conference, memorializes Nicholas Rosecrans, a toddler who drowned in 1996 after he wandered away from a day-care center into the unfenced pool of the house next door. The boy’s death prompted a group of paramedics in San Diego to create EPIC (Eliminating Preventable Injuries in Children) Medics; one of the organization’s first successes was helping to secure passage of a state law requiring barriers around all new pool construction.

Starting on a shoestring

Safe Kids York County got started in 1997 when White, then working as a paramedic, approached management with the idea of working to prevent some of the heart-wrenching injuries he was seeing on the job.

“My boss said, ‘I don’t have the budget. You can’t have overtime,’” White said. “But a core group got together anyway and kept pushing forward, getting nonprofit status and recruiting community volunteers.”

In 2007, White was promoted to EMS director, then took a job as the EMS agency’s first community relations director in 2010 so he could devote more of his time to injury prevention. Today, Safe Kids York County relies on more than 30 volunteers and multiple community partners, who in 2013 donated a combined 4,500 hours to the cause.

“We couldn’t do it without our community partners like the hospital, police, fire, the city, the health department and department of social services, even a pediatrician’s office that allows staff to volunteer for us and helps get the word out about our events,” he said.

Activities White and his team of volunteers did last year include:

Bike and pedestrian safety: Safe Kids York County holds several types of bike-safety events, including “bike rodeos,” during which volunteers set up a bike safety course with a working stop light and road signs. Kids are taught traffic safety and hand signaling, and are fitted for a helmet. In 2013, the group gave 1,500 bike helmets to children in need. One giveaway was done during an annual event known as COOLfest (Celebration of Our Lives Festival), which is sponsored by a local substance abuse service.

“You could tell these people didn’t have much,” White said. We gave a little girl a helmet and the kid was so happy. She had gotten a dollar because she lost her tooth. “She said, ‘Mommy, Mommy, can I give that dollar to them?’ She heard me telling the mom that all donations we take go back into the safety program to buy helmets, car seats, gun locks and flotation devices. That’s the energy that drives us. That little girl is going to pay it forward somewhere down the road.”

The group also worked with the school district to put the entire sixth grade through a two-week, 10-hour bicycle safety program.

Gun safety: In partnership with law enforcement, White and his team speak to school children with the help of the Eddy Eagle gun safety mascot, Boy Scout troops, church groups and other community groups about keeping guns away from children. They also provide gun locks free of charge.

Car seat checks: The county has four car seat safety stations, where members of the community can make an appointment or stop by during certain hours to learn how to properly install a car seat. One is at EMS headquarters; another is held monthly at a free health clinic; a third is every other month at Britax, a car seat manufacturer located in nearby Fort Mill, S.C.; and a fourth is at the York County Coroner’s Office.

In fact, all Coroner’s Office staff are certified child passenger safety technicians, a course White teaches.

“The coroner [Sabrina Gast] gets mad just like I do when I go to a car crash and I see a child whose car seat was ejected because it was improperly installed,” White said. “Her job is to pick up dead people, but she wanted to see what she could do to prevent that.”

Car seat safety is a central mission of the group.

“Of the hundreds I have personally checked, I can almost count on one hand the times they have been installed 100 percent right,” White said. “It might be minor, but in a crash, it could make a difference.”

Water safety: In a new initiative, Safe Kids York County is working to place loaner life jackets and water safety information near popular swimming and boating areas along Lake Wylie and the Catawba River. Swimmers or boaters spotted wearing the vests by lake patrol or law enforcement will be given a voucher for a free ice cream.

Returning the vests will rely on the honor system.

“We know some of them will walk off,” White saids. “But if I can save one life and I lose 100 life vests, I’ll do it again tomorrow. It’s one life you can’t put a price tag on.”

Inspiration from the garden

If he ever needs inspiration to keep going, White looks out at the memorial garden and thinks of Spencer and Larell, the first boys to have their names placed there.

As the third child was airlifted to the hospital, a second ambulance arrived on scene to take his partner to the hospital. Both the child and his partner survived.

Years later, while volunteering at a camp for underprivileged children sponsored by the police department, White was approached by a teenager. He didn’t recognize him at first, until the boy told him he was the third child who had been in that tragic car wreck.

“I hugged him and cried,” White said.

In the memorial garden, a blue flag flies next to the American flag and the South Carolina state flag on days when there are no accidental deaths of children in their county. A red flag is raised half-mast on days a child has died. After giving the family time to grieve, White reaches out to them to ask if they would like a memorial stone placed in the garden in honor of the child.

“When I stop and take a deep breath and I look at that memorial garden, I’m reminded that’s why we do what we do,” he said. “We need to continue moving forward. Those children didn’t get a second chance. These other kids do.”

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