It was the sort of incident that caused even the normally ebullient George Wager to brood.
A 9-year-old La Puente boy, on his way to Little League practice in May, 1983, was struck by a car and suffered severe head injuries. To police, to doctors, to anyone who came in contact with him for six hours after the accident, the boy was a mystery, a child without a name, without a home, without parents, relatives or friends, and without a medical history.
It took six hours to find the boy's mother, Wager said. The next morning, he recalled, the boy was removed from artificial life support systems and died.
Soon after the boy's death, Wager, 40, a father of four who coaches Little League in his home city of La Palma and who heard about the accident "through the Little League grapevine," sat on his porch "watching my kids go off in all different directions--the mall, the playground, around the corner."
"I was sitting there next to my Great Dane, almost nose to nose, and I looked and saw this tag that said, 'My name is Brutus and I belong to so-and-so and I live at this address and I've had such-and-such shots.' And I said to myself, 'Now here is the height of stupidity. This dog has better identification than my kids do.' "
Wager decided the need was clear. He designed a plastic laminated tag, about the size of a washing instructions label inside a shirt, that could be fixed or laced onto children's shoes. The tags had spaces for parents to write the child's name, address, phone number, doctor's name and number, insurance company, blood type and other medical information. There was also a space for a parent's signature, authorizing emergency medical treatment.
Wager, who had made his living designing advertising giveaway promotions, decided to devote all his time to distributing the tags free to anyone who wanted them. He planned to eventually enlist sponsors to pay for materials and cost of distribution.
But the only people who appeared enthusiastic about the idea in the beginning, he said, were the Little League teams to which he distributed the first tags. He contacted national shoe and clothing retailers but found no interest.
For almost three years, Wager sank his family nearly $120,000 into debt, took a second mortgage on his house and "wrote bad checks to try to pay off other bad checks" while he tried to stir up interest in his Lifesaver tags.
Months of Frustration
Now, after months of often frustrating appeals to police agencies, paramedics, ambulance services, small businesses, large retailers and local and national companies, Wager's nonprofit Anaheim-based corporation, Lifesaver Charities, is almost in the black.
And the demand for the tags, Wager said, is soaring. During the last school year, from September, 1985, to June, 1986, 40 million tags were distributed, and Wager said he expects to distribute 120 million during the next school year. He expects the increase largely because of a story about the tags that appeared in this month's issue of Reader's Digest.
Since the article appeared, Wager said, nearly 85,000 letters have poured into his office, requesting more information or asking for tags.
"We're giving away about a million (tags) a week now," he said.
In California, he said, the costs of providing the tags are being borne by such companies as Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Alpha Beta and Lucky supermarkets, banks, real estate companies and local businesses.
But recognition came hard. The first sign of interest was in the summer of 1983 after an article about the tags was published in a national sheriff's magazine, Wager said. Several small orders from law-enforcement agencies filtered in, but one day a police sergeant from Mitchell, S.D., called Lifesaver Charities and "wanted to know how he'd go about getting 17,000 tags for every kid in Mitchell," Wager said. "It didn't take the police long to network."
Deeper Into Debt
A handful of police agencies around the country began limited distribution of the tags, occasionally with local corporate sponsorships, but it didn't keep Wager from going deeper into debt.
"I think at that point I kept going just because I was being stubborn," Wager said. "If you ever want to test your relationship with your wife, just tell her you're going to take all the equity in your house and sink it into something like this."
Wager said his bank continued to extend his grace periods, as did the Kimberly-Clark Corp., which developed and provided the light, rip-proof material from which the tags are made. (The original plastic laminated cards tended to crack in cold weather, Wager said. The current tags are designed to be sewn or laced onto shoes, or sewn inside shirt collars and trouser waists where washing instructions usually are attached.)
By Christmas of 1984, Wager was $80,000 in debt, embittered by retailers' lack of interest.
"It was disastrous," Wager remembered. "I just sat down on the couch and said, 'I quit. Nobody wants the things.' "