Jake Manna found an autistic girl during a break from solar panel work


Jake Manna was installing solar panels in a house when he saw a woman frantically running down the street.

“My disabled daughter is missing! Have you seen a 5-year-old with dark hair wearing a blue t-shirt and a diaper?” Manna recalled the woman asking residents in the neighborhood’s Buttermilk Bay area of ​​Plymouth, Massachusetts, on July 13 would have.

The autistic girl appeared to have snuck away from her yard around noon, he said, and she had been missing for about 15 minutes. Neighbors who checked their home security cameras reported seeing her hopping through their yards.

When Manna saw people on the street searching their backyards and garages for the missing child, he stopped his work and jumped in to help.

It occurred to him and several others that the girl might have gone into a wooded area surrounding the neighborhood.

“There are many trails and no one was looking there,” said Manna, 20, who is from Hanover, Mass., about 16 miles away.

He and a man who lives on the street decided to go to the wooded area and separate to look for the girl, he said.

Manna passed a “pathway closed” sign and walked down the path for about 10 or 15 minutes, checking left and right for signs of the child. Towards the end of the trail, he said, he caught a glimpse of water through the trees.

“I sprinted over there and I saw there was a creek and I saw a t-shirt and a diaper floating in it,” he said. “My heart went into my pants.”

Manna, a former lifeguard, said he thought the girl drowned. He ran down the creek to look for her and ended up in a swamp. A naked child splashed in it.

“She was playing in the water and it was waist-deep,” he recalled. “I called out to her but I didn’t want to scream because I thought it would scare her. She was walking toward deeper water about 10 feet away so I told her to stop.”

When the girl didn’t listen to him, Manna said, he quickly took off his shoes and socks and waded out to her. She was about 30 feet away, he said.

“It was a really muddy swamp – my feet were starting to sink into the ground [it was] quicksand,” he said. “When I reached her, I picked her up by the armpits, held her as high as I could, and brought her back to shore.”

The child was not crying or making any noise, Manna said.

The neighbor he was looking with heard him calling for the girl and rushed down the path to help.

“I gave her to him and he held her like a baby and carried her back to the neighborhood,” Manna said, noting that someone gave the girl a life jacket and towel to wear while everyone waited for the mother to arrive.

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“When the mother saw us, she ran to us, grabbed the girl and went down with her to hug her for the longest time, probably 30 minutes,” he said. “She was quite emotional, as you can imagine, and she was grateful we found her.”

By that time, the police had arrived, Manna said, so he returned to his place of work, where he met with a home inspector.

“I was just really happy that I could help reunite the girl with her mother and I thought that was it,” he said.

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The child could have drowned if Manna hadn’t found her, said Captain Jason Higgins of the Plymouth Police Department.

“She’s autistic and nonverbal, and the swamp led to a little deeper water,” he said. “The officers who were there immediately realized that Jake is a very special young man. He gave up his plan to look for her.”

The day after the rescue, Plymouth Police presented Manna with a certificate of appreciation and a coin bearing the department’s insignia to thank him for his quick action.

“If he hadn’t taken that route and seen the missing clothes, we hate to think what the outcome would have been,” said a Facebook post from Plymouth Police about the rescue.

“This girl had a guardian angel yesterday… and his name was Jake,” Officer Vinnie Roth wrote in the Facebook post. He was one of the first officers to respond to the call at Buttermilk Bay.

The praise continued in Manna’s hometown, where on July 18 he was honored by the Hanover Special Committee for keeping the child safe.

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“Jake is a quiet and unassuming but confident young man,” said Joseph Colangelo, Hanover City Manager. “Everyone in Hanover is proud of him.”

Manna, who graduated from high school in 2020, worked for several years as a lifeguard at a nearby holiday camp. As part of that job, he often encountered special needs children, he said.

“I’ve learned to be a little more patient and understanding,” Manna said. “I enjoyed working with them and children of all kinds.”

“Sometimes a kid has sensory issues with anything that touches their skin,” he added. “This is what this little girl’s mother said about her after she was found. She has a wrist monitor that she always tears off.”

The mother asked that she and her daughter not be publicly identified. Manna said he hopes the mother isn’t being too hard on herself.

“Things happen and I would hate it if she thinks it’s her fault,” he said.

Police found no evidence of parental neglect, Higgins said.

One roommate is 85, the other 27. Such arrangements are increasing.

“Although the mother is not willing to talk [to the media], she is very grateful for Jake’s actions and the actions of the entire neighborhood,” he said. “She knows it might have turned out differently if Jake hadn’t accidentally found a right path.”

Manna said he’s grateful he happened to be paying attention on a hot summer’s day.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “If anyone would find her, I’m glad it was me.”

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