June 25, 2021

Abandoned at birth, Safe Haven Baby Box founder says, ‘I was made for this’

Monica and Joe Kelsey smile for a photo at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis on April 30. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Monica and Joe Kelsey smile for a photo at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis on April 30. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

WEST TERRE HAUTE—Monica Kelsey knew she was adopted. She also knew she wanted to find her birth mother.

“It was never a question of if or when—I knew I was going to find her one day,” says Kelsey, 48, who is the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Indiana-based Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

And she found herself with her husband Joe in 2010, meeting with the woman whom she believed surrendered her for adoption through an abundance of love.

“At first I couldn’t understand why she was telling us this sad story,” Kelsey recalls. “Then I took a step back and realized she was talking about me and her.”

‘I had to find my worth’

The story involved a 17-year-old young woman who was raped, beaten and left by the side of the road in October 1972. Six weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant.

Though abortion was still illegal, Kelsey’s birth mother sought one, but changed her mind at the last moment.

After the attacker was arrested and charged with rape and battery (Kelsey does not know if he was convicted), the ashamed teen stayed out of the public eye for the rest of her pregnancy. When she did give birth, the scared young mother left her baby daughter at a hospital in a small Ohio town.

“It was devastating,” says Kelsey. “I didn’t want to be that unwanted, unloved child that was whisked into this world by violence. I wanted to be the child I grew up thinking I was, which was loved so much that your birth mother gave you to two parents.

“It was tough to swallow. It took me to a low point. I had to find my worth—that’s the best way to explain it.”

At the time, Kelsey worked as an ambulance medic, a skill she learned during her time as a firefighter with the U.S. Navy.

“I always felt like I wanted to help people,” she says. “Being a medic let me help people and became an avenue to help me find my worth.

“In the back of an ambulance, if I save somebody’s life they’re thanking me. … So, I buried myself on an ambulance for a long time every night, because that’s where I was seeing my worth the most. … I think that truly helped me to circle back to my faith and see that my worth was always there.”

‘To achieve … the survival of many people’

Kelsey, who was raised a Christian, says she leaned heavily on Scripture to help her through the difficult time.

“You have to bury yourself in it to see where you fit in and look for your purpose,” she says. “You’re trying to figure out what something [in your life] means, then you come across Scripture that really stands out to you that is totally talking about your life.”

For Kelsey, that passage was in the Book of Genesis, the words of Joseph to his traitorous brothers, “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve his present end, the survival of many people ” (Gn 50:20).

“I love that Scripture because it clearly shows someone who has taken pain and turned it into purpose,” she says. “I tried to structure my pain and turn it into purpose.”

Her effort became especially focused after her biological mother died in 2013.

“We actually talked about not telling anyone and just letting the truth die,” says Kelsey. “I could’ve been just happy doing that.”

Joe immediately turns to her and says, “No you wouldn’t.”

Kelsey laughs.

“That’s probably true, I probably wouldn’t,” she agrees. “But it certainly would’ve been easier!”

Easier, that is, than the path she instead chose: creating a product, hotline and non-profit organization called Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

‘I believe I was made for this’

After her birth mother died, Kelsey knew she wanted to “save the lives of children, because my life was saved.”

The same year her biological mother died, Kelsey went to South Africa with her friend and chastity promoter, Pam Stenzel, on a tour to promote abstinence. It was there that she first saw a baby box and learned about its purpose.

“I came home and told Joe, ‘We’re going to make baby boxes,’ ” she recalls. “He said, ‘We’re going to make what?’ ”

She spent the next two years researching, planning and designing, all while working full time. (Related story: Safe Haven Baby Boxes save lives, but are about ‘so much more than the box’)

The organization’s first baby box was installed in 2016. For several years, Kelsey continued to work full time while running the organization, researching applicable laws, coordinating the aspects of a baby box installation and attending the opening and blessing ceremony.

It finally became too much. She retired from her job as a medic and now pours all of her time and energy into Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

Serving by her side is her husband of 22 years, Joe. He works as the organization’s chief operating officer while also serving as mayor of Woodburn, their small, northern Indiana hometown.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” says Joe. “We’re really busy right now.”

But his face beams when asked about Monica’s accomplishments.

“I am so proud of my wife, just so proud,” he says emphatically. “We’re changing lives in the entire country. I just can’t get over the fact.”

The organization’s first baby was saved in 2017.

“We keep in contact with a lot of the parents who adopt these babies,” Kelsey says. “At our [fundraising] banquet last year, six of them brought their baby-box babies. It was such an honor to see them and to think that they were saved in our boxes. It keeps us passionate, seeing the fruits of our labor.

“We try to have one or more of our saved babies at an installation so people can see what the other side of this [effort] looks like.”

‘Monica is changing lives’

The other side looks like Tessa Higgs as she holds 2-year-old Magnolia “Nola” Higgs on her hip at a baby box opening in West Terre Haute on May 3. The toddler reaches out to Kelsey and offers a bite of her cookie, which Kelsey pretends to take from the child whose life her baby box saved.

“Monica is changing lives,” says Tessa who, with her husband Keegan, adopted Nola after she was surrendered as an infant in an Indiana baby box.

Tessa says Kelsey “took such a tragic beginning and turned it into something positive to help other babies and other families like us that wanted to have a child but weren’t able to.”

Kelsey sees her work with Safe Haven Baby Boxes as a mission, a calling.

“I believe I was made for this,” she declares. “To be able to save the lives of children, because my life was saved.”

(To read more about Monica Kelsey’s story, read her new book, Blessed to Have Been Abandoned: the Story of the Baby Box Lady, available for purchase at shbb.org/shop. All proceeds benefit Safe Haven Baby Boxes.)


Related: Indiana’s Safe Haven Law

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