Have a mission statement: it provides clarity and helps with saying yes and no. I wanted to say yes to the needs that were before me but I realized I couldn’t take on every need. I had to learn how to say NO to some good things, so I could say yes, to the things that were better suited to my mission and that were meant for me.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Znachko.
Linda Znachko is the founder of He Knows Your Name Ministries, which seeks to honor every child with a name in life and dignity and honor in death. Znachko is a popular speaker at conferences and retreats and has been interviewed numerous times since the life-changing events of 2009 when she learned of the death of a precious baby boy, whose body was found in a dumpster. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
He Knows Your Name was birthed in October of 2009 when the body of a newborn baby, dressed only in a diaper, was discovered in downtown Indianapolis. Three thoughts rang through my head:
- A dumpster is NOT a grave!
- A diaper is NOT a burial gown!
- And Doe is NOT a name!
After 13 months of a criminal investigation, that revealed the funeral home had illegally disposed of the baby’s body, baby Nicholas was given a beautiful funeral, with his mother present.
My first career was as a stay-at-home mom, I never expected at the age of 49, God would bring me a new unexpected, surprise of a career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of the most, impactful stories of my life was the day when I was called by an adoption attorney to take care of a baby who was in the NICU in a children’s hospital in Indianapolis. The mother had signed the adoption paperwork and was out of the picture. When I got the call, my answer was an immediate “yes”, and I drove over to meet him and the team of physicians in a conference room. I said, “Yes I’ll take care of her in death, I’ll take care of her funeral, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.” But the attorney said, “No, no, you don’t understand, this baby needs you in life, this baby needs you to make her end-of-life decisions.” I was being asked to take care of a critically ill baby, who needed a guardian to take care of her at that moment and make final decisions for her life.
It was there, that I made a shift from operating as an organization to operating in the deepest, most personal place in my heart. I never expected to love on a baby in the NICU, to make decisions with her physicians about life support, and hold her until she died in my arms. We didn’t expect her to live more than a few minutes, but she defied the odds and lived for two hours. During this time my husband and I loved on her as I held her in my arms. She became our fifth daughter, Abigail Elise, whom we later adopted in a posthumous adoption, and was honored in a standing-room-only end of life celebration. Adopting her into our family was so personal, caring for the details of her funeral and burial helped my grieving heart and working through my emotions as my organization and personal life met in the deepest place.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on in my organization, a need arose for me to gift a headstone to a mother who had lost her only, young, teenage son, Tim Bray, in an accidental drowning accident in a public pool. I went to the coroner’s office, assuming I would meet just with the mom, Addy. As I prepared to go into the conference room, the corner said, “The family is here.” “Family?” I thought I was only going to meet with the mother who had gone through the tragic loss of her son, but to my awkward surprise, I met the whole family, representing three generations in that conference room.
I walked in, and they looked at me as if to ask, “what are you going to do?” I asked them, “Tell me about Tim.” And that question set the stage for how the time together went, from a meeting to a gathering. In my organization, I don’t have meetings as much as I have gatherings. When you gather with people, the unexpected often occurs. Together, in that packed conference room, they shared for an hour about “their Tim.” The lesson I learned, is that in God’s upside-down economy, that is the way things go with my organization, they don’t go as planned. My best-laid plans usually get flipped over. The unfamiliar has become the familiar. Every time I think I have the blueprint for the organization figured out, my little plan gets flipped.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Through my organization, I strongly champion the Safe Haven Law. The Indiana Safe Haven Law put in place in 2000, allows a person in crisis to safely surrender a baby, under 30 days old, who shows no signs of intentional neglect or abuse, without fear of arrest or prosecution. In 2018 I claimed a baby who had been found, deceased, and abandoned in a state park, I named her Amelia. At her funeral, I met a woman, Monica Kelsey, who is the founder of the Safe Haven Baby Box, which provides privately funded safe surrender boxes to be placed in hospitals or fire stations, where a baby can be anonymously surrendered and received immediate medical care.
I support Safe Haven baby Boxes, and currently am working to bring awareness to the new addition of the Safe Haven 911 feature. This means that if an adult would like to surrender a baby but cannot make it to one of the safe-haven locations, they can surrender their baby safely to a medical team who comes to them. Though they need to stay with the baby until the team arrives, they can remain anonymous. Through media, which serves as the educational arm to reaching people, I work to share and bring awareness to the Safe Haven Law in Indiana, and across this country.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
In 2016, under tragic circumstances, the life of a baby was taken in a dorm bathroom by a mother who found herself in crisis, Mikayla Munn. After a two-year criminal investigation, I was contacted to bury that baby, Alexander Liam Roland. I worked with baby Alexander’s father, Desmond, to plan and officiate his funeral, which took place on Grandparent’s Day in 2018. It was a precious day, with sunshine, a butterfly release, a handmade urn as he was buried with family from previous generations. Just this year, I was contacted by a friend of Mikayla’s and learned she wanted to speak with me for the first time. Through exchanged messages, I grew to learn of Mikayla’s heart, and her desire to prevent other mothers in crisis from making the same painful mistake that she did. I now call Mikayla a friend. Together, we are promoting the Safe Haven Law to protect and save other at-risk babies and moms. I do not judge her or any mom I serve and love.
Incredibly, baby Alexander’s father, Desmond, has offered what few men can, grace. He has forgiven Mikayla. Our culture has seen enough judgment, hate, and un-forgiveness. No more. Redemption changes people. It doesn’t bring a baby back to life but it can change a person to be different to carry hope and healing. Mikayla wants to help other moms in crisis. And, so do I.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
It is a mission of mine to have the Safe Haven Law taught in schools. So, the community can ask and do their part to make sure there is awareness and education in their schools to help future young women who may find themselves in crisis.
One of the facets of He Knows Your Name is getting Cuddlecots into hospitals around the country. Cuddlecots are small, discrete, portable cooling devices that give the gift of time to families experiencing infant loss. With a Cuddlecot, the family can keep their little one close by, giving them time to bond, grieve, and hold their precious baby. This also allows siblings and other family members to meet the little one.
Cuddlecots are currently privately funded, and through He Knows Your Name, there is a not-for-profit discount. Leading a fundraiser to gift a Cuddlecot to your area hospital is a practical way you can show love and support for grieving families.
Another big way society can help is by doing what we can to end the stigma around infant loss. To focus on providing excellent bereavement care and providing financial assistance for funeral/burial needs to under-resourced families. When I started donating Cuddlecots to area hospitals, my initial hope was to decrease hospital abandonment. Hospital abandonment is a situation in which a baby, by law, born over 20 weeks gestation needs next steps taken for burial, and at that time, has family that is unable to be reached to make final arrangements. I hope that Cuddlecots can be a solution to decreasing hospital abandonment by giving a family in loss more time and the ability to bond with their little one.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Carrying and communicating the vision for my nonprofit organization and inviting passionate people to join me to be on mission is important for growth and accomplishing my goals. Building relationships in my community with other nonprofit organizations, businesses, and community leaders has been the key to having a sustainable impact in my state. My partners have helped me grow and bring change in other states because they have not just supplied resources but they have participated in my mission. They “own” their part and want to see an impact in other states with me.
I have invited them to leverage their relationships to my mission and now that they feel “involved” we help one another avoid mission drift. That is a real threat to my work. We are exposed to deep needs in families and staying focused on our assignment is a discipline. I lead by example and that is the strongest testimony for developing leaders with character.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Have a mission statement: it provides clarity and helps with saying yes and no. I wanted to say yes to the needs that were before me but I realized I couldn’t take on every need. I had to learn how to say NO to some good things, so I could say yes, to the things that were better suited to my mission and that were meant for me.
- Safety First: I went to too many unfamiliar places alone. Once, I went to meet a mom in need and she changed the location of our meeting twice. When I arrived at the apartment I immediately knew I could be in danger and no one else knew where I was. Unfortunately, when advocating for under-resourced people I am at risk when I go to apartment complexes, run-down parts of the city, or cemeteries, which are desolate. I have learned to make sure someone always knows where I am, or I hire security for protection.
- Get administrative help: I needed assistance with bookkeeping, tracking shipments, and communicating. It wasn’t until I wrote my book that I hired someone to help me. They were a LIFESAVER! My publisher recommended I seek help with the launch of my book so I hired someone who I still have with me today. Long after the book launch, I realized I would be lost without my trusted assistant. She breathes life into my work, passion, and relationships. I did a book event with a well-known author and after she met my assistant she commented that she wanted to snag her from me. I of course said, “never!”
- Fatigue: My work is very intense and I am exposed to tragedy in other people’s lives daily. I love what I do, I can bring hope and solutions to people in their darkest hour of need and I love meeting new people. But, sometimes I get tired. My work is always filled with the unexpected, traumatized people are unpredictable, and my events take place outside where the weather doesn’t always cooperate. This can make me fatigued both emotionally and physically. I had to recognize that I need rest, solitude, and refreshment to keep going.
- Tell the story: I need to be reminded, by my recall of the amazing experiences, that this work is vital to our community, culture, and future generations. Telling stories helps others share in the sacred suffering of others. To not fear death or the grave as special and beautiful things happen when people help one another. Sharing hard things within a community of others makes living life bearable. When I share stories, through speaking engagements, my book, or at a gathering around a dinner table we feel, think, and reflect on the true meaning of life. Reliving experiences with people opens up opportunities for deeper conversations about how others live, what they experience, and consider hardships we might not otherwise experience. I desire to create an atmosphere of empathy so our humanity has the space to be real, hopeful, and kind.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I love the quote, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Kindness has no room for judgment. I would like to see us be less judgmental of one another. Everyone grieves differently and there are no “shoulds” in the grief journey. I would love to see our culture give tender permission to grieve pregnancy and infant loss. Employers could grant more leave time for families experiencing loss. Loss impacts everyone and not everyone grieves well. Bereavement in hospitals could be so much better than it is. They need more funding for resources and support. Young families cannot afford infant loss costs and need financial help from hospital foundations to give honor and dignity to their precious children.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My quote comes from the Bible. Isaiah 43:1 “Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.”
I strongly believe there is a purpose in my life as a child of God. The work I do carries that same value. There is purpose in every life and I desire to live fully in my purpose so I can be most satisfied and content. I want to leave a legacy that will live on and multiply. Honoring ‘life’ and giving others around me the worth they deserve will inspire them to be kind, loving, and joy-filled. Humanity needs space to live in freedom, grace, and hope to be gentle, compassionate, and kind. Every child deserves a name in life and dignity in death.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Anne Graham Lotz
I appreciate her writings and integrity. Her father, Billy Graham, was a legend. Her mother, Ruth, was an unsung hero who quietly and sacrificially served her family. Anne has adult children, who like mine, have challenged her and she continues to live a purpose-filled life and never seems to quit or be discouraged.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!