After Skyler James graduated from Charleston High School last week in Illinois, her parents had a party in her honor on Sunday afternoon. The 18-year-old honors student, who will attend Concordia University in Chicago this fall, was talking to some friends when she was told her parents wanted to see her and standing beside her mother was a man who Skyler didn’t recognize.
“Hello … my name is Charlie.” The man said to her. “You and I have met once before.”
Skyler politely studied his face and shook her head, unable to place him. “We met back on Nov. 4, 1995. Do you remember that day?” he asked and the now bewildered girl actually said “No.”
“I know,” Charlie smiled, “I don’t expect you to remember the day you were born. On your birthday I found you underneath the pine tree in the cemetery…” That’s when Skyler, bursting into tears as she suddenly realized who Charlie was, jumped into his arms and hugged and hugged as both cried over what has to be the greatest graduation gift of the year.
On November 4, 1995, Charlie Heflin remembered it was 20-below-zero in Illinois with the wind chill. He was working for a cable company, repairing lines that had snapped in a heavy snow during the night and, because he was also a volunteer firefighter in Urbana, he had a police scanner in his truck. With the fierce weather, he was unable to work outside for more than a few minutes at a time and was listening to the scanner when he heard an oddity.
The dispatcher said a female caller had anonymously reported she had abandoned a newborn baby in a cemetery near a pine tree but that a team of firefighters and police had scoured the place and couldn’t locate any child. Charlie remembered another cemetery about four miles away and, on a gut hunch, he drove to New Hope Cemetery to look around shortly after 7 a.m.
“I pulled up in front of the cemetery. There was a large pine tree,” Heflin told ABC News this week. “There was about a foot of snow on the ground. There were footprints all over the area so it looked like somebody had been there. I couldn’t find anything. I walked around the pine tree a couple of times and I didn’t see anything.” Heflin walked back to his truck but said something told him to go back and check one more time.
"I heard a little whimper when I got close to the tree,' Charlie told WFIE reporter Kenny Douglass. "I dug down inside this real huge pine tree and found her. She was wrapped in a Raggedy Anne blanket."
He immediately wiped away the snow and leaves and put the newborn under his coat, hurrying to his truck and its warmth. He radioed in, driving madly with one hand while holding the baby inside his coat, and was met by an ambulance halfway to the hospital. When he handed the baby to the EMT, it was the last time he saw Skyler until her graduation night, when he secretly watched her walk for her diploma before surprising her at the party.
“When they called her name to get her diploma I actually got to see her for the first time,” he said. “It was just a mix of emotions. All great stuff. I was so happy it turned out so great. She graduated with honors and was a beautiful young lady.”
You see, because of privacy laws, Charlie was unable to find out anything about Skyler after he passed her to the ambulance. But five days after she arrived at the hospital, a critical care nurse there and her husband adopted the baby. Bonnie and Greg James adopted another abandoned child a year later and have been very truthful with their children. Skyler has wanted to meet the man who found her since she was five.
Only recently has social media enabled a good search and, when Bonnie found Charlie on Facebook at the Potoka Fire Station several weeks ago, the graduation day reunion was set in place. “There were quite a few tears, both on the phone and when Skyler and I met,” said the firefighter.
He gave her clippings that he had saved for 18 years and even handed her the fireman’s fleece jacket that kept her warm on her first ride to the hospital. Charlie told her that she had actually inspired the state law, “Safe Haven,” that allows any newborn to be dropped off at a hospital, fire, or police station without legal repercussions.
Skyler told ABC News, “It’s very important to me to remind myself that even though I had a rough start in life, I have an amazing life and I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’m just so blessed that God has given me this great life,” she said.
Skyler James hopes to become a pastor and Charlie Heflin is tickled pink.