Saturday October 27, 2012

I recently had an experience that is every parent's worst nightmare: I lost my daughter in a store. I've been reflecting on this powerful experience and realize that in terms of safety for my family, being proactive pays off.

Here's the story: My husband and I were together with both our daughters. We decided to shop separately for some things. My older daughter Nina parted with me to go with him, then ran back to give me something. She must've taken a different route back trying to find him, because the next thing I know, he's walking towards me saying, "Nina's with you, right?" No! How many minutes could it really have been? Not even two, probably. But enough for us to lose her.

The store was big store, but not a huge store. I experienced a feeling of concern, but I also felt like it wouldn't take much to find her. We went opposite ways and I truly thought we'd locate her immediately. Up and down I walked with my younger daughter in my arms. Another minute or two went by and we intersect, both of us with no sight of Nina. My feeling of concern quickly evolved to on-the-edge-of-panic. My husband widened his radius and I headed to the front of the store. A few seconds later, I reached the cashier. I hear the words come out of my mouth - "We lost our daughter" - and something shifts in me. Is this really happening? I need them to lock the doors! I can't live without her. The cashier shut off her light and calmly said to follow her.

We made our way to the service desk where another woman started asking me questions. I couldn't speak. I tried to put my thoughts and words together, but all I could do was swallow so that I didn't burst into tears. I managed to repeat that I couldn't find my daughter. She instantly said into her walkie-talkie, "We have a code Adam," and I knew I needed to say more.

She asked me what she looks like. I still had a hard time talking. She asked, "What color is her hair?" Blonde, shoulder length. I could picture her outfit. I tried to say that her shirt is blue, but purple came out. Then green. My mind was spinning, my adrenaline was rushing through me. I described her some more and she repeated it to the staff.

A few more agonizing seconds go by, then I heard a staff person say through the radio, "I see a subject with that description with a male, it looks like it's her father. They're heading to the front."

When I saw her in my husband's arms, her face showed her fear. We switched children and she regressed to a baby, saying, "Mommy ... lost."

I squeeze her every day, but I have never squeezed her so tight. I knew I needed to be strong in this moment, but I walked to the edge of the store with her in my arms, buried my face into her neck and just let myself cry for a few seconds.

It was then time reassure her. I wanted to make sure she wasn't traumatized, so I stood up straight and offered her my strength. After we got our bearings, it was time to talk.

We'd talked in the past about getting lost. She knows to look for a policeman or someone in a uniform. But does she know that could mean nametags or aprons? In that moment, I took the opportunity to stand in the same place where she left our sight and talk about what we saw. We saw people of all ages and types, stocking the shelves. I made her notice their name tags and tell her that she can go up to any of these people and it's there job to keep her safe.

Thinking about this experience has me brainstorming ways I can help my children stay safe in this big world. Here are just a few thoughts that come to mind:

- Teach them what 911 is as soon as they can begin to understand it. Help keep it fresh in their minds by bringing up in conversation.

- Have them practice using a phone, including landlines and cell phones. While smartphones can be very intuitive for children to use, it could take five or more "clicks" to get to the place of actually making a phone call.

- Notice what they are wearing. Get into the habit of taking a snapshot in your mind of their clothes, their hairstyles. Small details like these can prove critical in times of need.

- Meet a fireman in gear. The local firefighters are more than willing to visit child care programs to demonstrate how friendly they really are. They will slowly put on their gear while talking through the functions of their oversized outfits. Encourage your child care provider to make this connection or contact the fire station yourself.

- Make sure your child care program has your current contact information. If you switch phones, or switch jobs, it can be easy to forget to make updates, but it's critical. And be sure that the emergency contacts you list also have your most current information.

Again, these are just a handful of things that could be helpful in times of need. They all boil down to the same idea: knowledge is power. The more that we teach our children, the better equipped they'll be to stay strong in emergencies.

Sarah DiNicola is the Communications & Events Coordinator at Windham Child Care Association, and the mother of two young children, Sylvia, age 3, and Nina, age 5, who both spend time in a local child care program. She can be reached at sarah@windhamchildcare.org or 802-254-5332 ext. 310.