Safety Crusaders: The Story of 4 Real Women
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Safety Crusaders: The Story of 4 Real Women

Meet four women who had the courage to turn grief, pain, and fear into action.

Her Story Touched Hearts

Nancy Baker, 51, is a parent advocate for Safe Kids Worldwide, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that is dedicated to preventing injuries to children. She began working with the group after her 7-year-old daughter, Virginia Graeme Baker (who was known as Graeme), was trapped underwater in a hot tub and drowned. Baker has four surviving daughters, ages 14 to 24.

Sleep was hard to come by. In 2003, a year after the accident, I was reading about pool safety on the Internet late at night and came across the word "entrapment." I learned that drains should have a cover to cut down on the suction; without a cover, a small child's body could be pulled to the drain and held under water.

So Graeme died for the lack of a simple drain cover. While I was online, I also discovered that the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission was about to hold pool-safety hearings in Phoenix. I wrote to them about what had happened to Graeme, and they asked me to speak at the meeting.

It was my first experience as a public speaker, but I didn't have the slightest flutter of nerves. I felt Graeme was with me.

I learned to my dismay after I spoke that the commission could advocate better pool-safety rules but had limited authority to mandate them. That could happen only through legislation. The group's staff recommended that I contact Safe Kids Worldwide to see if I could help them put together a bill.

"You'll relive the accident over and over," the people at Safe Kids warned me when I offered to work with them. "And the process could take a long time." But working with the organization gave me a way to move forward, and I also found that activism is a way to heal.

So many people helped. The press covered Graeme's story. Citizens signed petitions. In May 2006, Safe Kids made entrapment and drowning the focus of National Safe Kids Week. Graeme's grandfather, former Secretary of State James Baker, introduced me to lawmakers, and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D.-Fla.) introduced pool-safety legislation. I touched hearts, people told me, when I testified before Congress in 2006. I thought, "My God, we may be able to change things."

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act passed the House and Senate, and in December 2007 the president signed the bill into law. My satisfaction in helping pass the bill is separate from my grief. The act mandates anti-entrapment devices and vacuum-release systems for public pools and spas. My daughter's life, however, was a terrible price to pay for this historic achievement.

She Focused on Solutions

Barbara Kowalcyk, 39, is director of food safety at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (www.foodborneillness.org), which she cofounded in 2006 with her mother, Patricia Buck, 62, a former English teacher. They started the Grove City, Pennsylvania, group after Kowalcyk's son Kevin, then 2, died in 2001 of an infection contracted from contaminated meat. Kowalcyk and her husband, Michael, have three surviving children, ages 4 to 12.

It was as if a truck hit our child and no one was interested in finding the driver. When we tried to figure out who oversees food safety, it seemed that government agencies protect the big food companies rather than consumers.

Contracting a food-borne illness is a horrific way to die. Kevin was sick for 12 days and on dialysis and a ventilator. His heart stopped twice. The third time we couldn't resuscitate him. If I, a well-informed parent who had done clinical research in the pharmaceutical industry, couldn't protect my child, I figured other moms and dads needed help, too. I was mad, but most of all I wanted to fix this problem.

In March 2002 I learned that Safe Tables Our Priority [S.T.O.P.] would be picketing the USDA in support of legislation that would allow the federal government to shut down substandard meat and poultry plants. I was six months pregnant at the time, so I stayed home while my husband and mother went to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate. At the rally Senator Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) walked by. A woman standing nearby pushed my mother forward and said, "Ask him to sponsor the bill." She did just that, and we were immensely gratified that the senator agreed.

Meeting Senator Specter got our activism under way. In 2004 I left the pharmaceutical industry to run S.T.O.P. and two years after that, I resigned from my job to start our center, which focuses on research on food-borne illnesses. My mom and I noticed that the USDA, the CDC, and other government agencies weren't sharing data with one another. Outbreaks of certain illnesses were occurring, but no one realized it. We talked to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D.-Conn.), who's a longtime food-safety advocate, and she brokered a 2007 agreement that would allow for interagency cooperation.

My family still battles grief, but seven years and a lot of counseling later we have more good days than bad. And we're looking forward to the possibility that the House and Senate will soon pass the meat-safety act Michael and my mom demonstrated for, which is now called Kevin's Law, after our son. Our organization should become as central to public health as the American Heart Association or American Cancer Society. I'm passionate about food safety but I wish I didn't have to be. There isn't a day I don't wish my son were alive.

She Made an Industry Listen

Janette E. Fennell, 54, is president of Kids and Cars (www.kidsandcars.org), a Leawood, Kansas, nonprofit advocating child and automobile safety. She founded the group after surviving a kidnapping during which she and her husband, Greig, a corporate business-continuity director, were locked in their car's trunk..

It was Halloween weekend, but I knew instantly that the masked men who ducked under our garage door as it closed behind us were not trick-or-treaters. They ordered us at gunpoint into the trunk of our car, got behind the wheel, and took off.

Our 9-month-old son, Alexander, had been asleep in his car seat. I thought we were all going to die. The men finally stopped, opened the trunk, told us to hand over our jewelry and wallets, slammed the trunk shut with us in it and left. Suddenly, in the dark trunk, I saw a little light shining on a piece of metal. I told my husband I thought I'd found the trunk release. Greig realized he could tug on the cable attached to the release, pop the trunk open and free us. To my horror the baby was gone. We soon learned that a police officer had found Alexander alone on our lawn, where the robbers had put him. We were lucky to be alive because we could have suffocated, another officer later told me.

His words haunted me. I made hundreds of calls to officials and found that no government agency collected data on car-trunk incidents because most occur on private property, not public roads. I consulted several sources, including newspaper stories and police reports, and estimated that more than 2,000 crime victims, as well as children playing hide-and-seek, had gotten locked in car trunks in the previous three decades; it appeared that at least 300 of them had died. Naively, I thought, "Wait till the car companies hear about this! They'll install internal trunk releases right away!" But the auto industry responded with form letters. Incidents and fatalities continued. I want to believe people care about one another, so I kept talking to anyone who would listen.

Eventually, I began to meet lawmakers. I also started the first national database of trunk incidents; as a result of this work, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] invited me to join a panel to study the issue. Following our panel's recommendation, NHTSA mandated glow-in-the-dark releases on new cars starting in 2002. We don't know of one fatality in car trunks with the new release.

I had no plans to move on to other issues. Hey, we'd fulfilled our goal. Then I noticed a huge increase in accidents involving cars mistakenly backing over children owing to the blind zone that can be found behind most vehicles. Why does it take a mom from Kansas to figure out that you should be able to see where you're going when you're driving backward?

Again, no one in the industry listened, but this time I knew what to do. I contacted Senators Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) and John Sununu (R.-N.H.), who in 2005 agreed to cosponsor a bill advocating rear-visibility standards. I was jubilant when the president signed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007, named after a 2-year-old killed when he wandered behind the family SUV.

My boys think I'm a safety nut. Alexander is 13 now and Noah is 10. Noah asks, "Mom, will I ever get out of this car seat?"

Her Goal Helped Her Cope

Linda Ginzel, 49, and her husband, Boaz Keysar, 50, both University of Chicago professors, cofounded the nonprofit Kids in Danger (www.kidsindanger.org) after the railing of a portable crib collapsed on their 16-month-old son Danny's neck, strangling him to death. The organization works to improve the safety of children's products. The couple have three surviving children, ages 5 to 15.

I thought I would ball up in a fetal position, unable to go on. But then my husband, Boaz, and I were shocked to read in the newspaper that five years before Danny's death the Consumer Product Safety Commission and manufacturers had recalled the crib that killed him. This followed the prior deaths of three other children. That's not all. We figured that more than a million cribs with similar design flaws were still out there, owned by unsuspecting parents. That's because recalls then did not include contacting parents, who weren't likely to hear of them.

Immediately, Boaz and I began warning others; we sent a mass e-mail to more than 5,000 people. We didn't think about starting an organization, just about getting the word out. A colleague helped us set up a Web site, a printer offered free services, and state Senator Carol Ronen noticed our work and joined the cause. Soon someone suggested that we put together a not-for-profit group, and we did. Our resolve strengthened when another baby died in the same model crib that killed Danny. Channeling our grief into this goal helped us cope. Just a year after Danny died, Illinois passed the country's first state law making it illegal to sell dangerous children's products.

We kept going, putting $20,000 from our savings into the group. We worked out of our basement, warning of the dangers of baby walkers and other kids' items. In 2001 we opened a Chicago office. In 2002 we won a lawsuit that required the manufacturer and licensor of the defective crib to pay us $3 million; we put some of the money into the group. We began helping advocates in other states pass child-safety acts. Ten states now have them, and several others may consider legislation. Sweeping national reform finally came in 2008 with federal legislation setting out safety and testing requirements for children's products and mandating registration cards so that purchasers can be notified of any recalls.

We miss Danny all the time, but being involved in this cause gives us a reason to talk about him every single day. It keeps him close.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, January 2009.

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