'I had to do something'

A child left to rot in a landfill. Another abandoned and wrapped in newspaper under railroad tracks. The images are disturbing as they are unthinkable.

For Susan Walker, the pictures coming from Chicago and around the state are heartbreaking.

Walker, 37, is the founder of Rest in His Arms, a non-profit organization that provides Christian funerals and burial services for abandoned, unidentified children, including Baby Kinzie Marie, whose stillborn body was found July 21 under a rail viaduct at the 4600 block of West Kinzie Street. Kinzie Marie is one of four babies found to be illegally relinquished so far in 2006 in Chicago.

The Wheeling woman was inspired by a 2005 newspaper article about an infant boy’s body found in a Grayslake landfill.

“I had to do something,” she recalls. “I called the county coroner’s office and helped plan the funeral,” which took place in Grayslake in September 2005.

The child was without a name, a final ignominy to a brief life. Walker named him Michael, which, she says, means “he who is like God.”

When two more children were found abandoned and dead three weeks later, Walker says, “I needed to do something. I felt there needed to be an organization to afford babies a last act of dignity, to let them know that they would be missed.”

With the help of two friends, Rest in His Arms was founded and incorporated, becoming a recognized organization in February 2006. But her desire to help others began years earlier.

Walker and her husband Larry have been foster parents for six children after acting upon the urging of a notice in their church bulletin.

Says Susan Walker, “The ad simply read, ‘Will you open your heart and your home to a child in need?’ And I just felt it was the right thing to do. I called Catholic Charities and went through their training program and background checks and we became licensed in 1999. Our first foster children came in December of '99.”

As the Walkers said goodbye to their last foster child, a four-year old boy named Stevie, he portended a happy message, one that eased their sadness of losing him.

“He said, ‘Don’t cry. You’ll be a mom soon.’” Sure enough, within a month, Walker discovered she was pregnant with daughter Grace, now 2 ½.

The joy of motherhood was tempered, however, when Michael’s body was found in August 2005. Shaken, but inspired by the gruesome discovery, Walker was further spurred to action when the two other children were found soon thereafter.

Walker, her friend Judi Seguy and her church deacon, Rev. Jim Pauwels, began by contacting county coroner’s and medical offices throughout Illinois. They offered their assistance and requested that they be notified of any abandoned babies found in the state.

Through this action and word of mouth, Walker says nearly 50 people and organizations have volunteered to help, offering time, money and more. The donations range from floral arrangements to burial plots. Strang Funeral Home, in Grayslake, has offered funeral services, while the Catholic Cemetery Association and Archdiocese of Chicago recently donated 48 burial plots.

One Good Samaritan, she says, hand-knits burial gowns for the tiny departed. The gowns offer a mournful, yet elegiac message: “You didn’t have time to leave footprints on the earth, but you left them in our hearts.”

Rest in His Arms invites the community to say goodbye to these abandoned babies, each of whom is given a name before being laid to rest. Walker counts six services that have been coordinated by the non-profit group. Most recently Baby Kinzie Marie, who made headlines after her death in July, was interred on Oct. 26 at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines.

The work can take its toll emotionally, but Walker says, “The best part is I don’t do it alone. There is a lot of community support.”

Still, she laments that Rest in His Arms can’t save every child. She says that Chicagoans and those across Illinois can do their part too.

“If you come across an abandoned baby, immediately call 911,” she advises. “It is a criminal act” to abandon a newborn. Furthermore, Illinois’ Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act, voted into law in 2001, gives new mothers the chance to safely – and legally – give up their child if they choose.

The law states that any newborn, within seven days of its birth, may be relinquished to personnel at “designated safe havens:” staffed police and fire stations, emergency medical centers or hospitals. The law is designed to give distressed mothers the ability to save a child’s life, with no questions asked. Save haven staff then notify the Department of Children and Family Services, which begins the process of entering the child in the state adoption registry.

Walker fears for abandoned babies as the winter approaches.

“It gets really scary as the weather gets cold. There is a 50/50 chance that an abandoned newborn is alive when it is found,” she says, stressing the importance of informing people about the “safe haven” laws. “It’s not what we can do (to prevent abandonment), but what we can do to get the word out.”

The four children found abandoned in Chicago this year may belie the actual number of newborns who are relinquished, yet never recovered. Dawn Geras, president of the Save the Abandoned Babies Foundation, a non-profit with a similar mission to Rest in His Arms, worries that official statistics do not include many more neglected infants, which go undiscovered.

“I hate to think about it. It’s really kind of frightening,” says Geras, whose organization helped write the Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act. “I look at the statistics from across the nation, at the hundreds of infants who are found, and it’s frightening to think of the ones who are never found.”

While Walker, a graduate of Carmel High School for Girls in Mundelein and MacMurray College in west central Jacksonville, Ill., cares equally for each child she has laid to rest, she says that Michael, the first infant for whom she cared, has a special place in her heart.

“Michael gave us the incentive to get things going and show these babies an act of dignity.”

Walker isn’t the only one who feels warmly for Michael. After his burial, her daughter Grace said, “Mommy, Baby Michael is in Heaven and he is smiling.”

Walker, who also works with the Save the Abandoned Babies Foundation, hopes Illinoisans become better educated about the safe haven laws. “We don’t want to bury babies. We want them alive. If parents can’t take care of the children, we hope they safely relinquish them.”

Burying a child is never an easy experience. But Walker prays that through her work, and the generosity of others, the short lives of those they bury can leave some sort of mark. They certainly have on her. Others have noticed.

At one ceremony, Marty Psik, director of All Saints Cemetery, approached Walker and said poignantly, “You must be a mom, because only a mom would fight so hard to keep all her babies together.”

For more information on Rest in His Arms, visit www.restinhisarms.org or call Walker at (847) 409-3595.