Abuse hard to overcome for KFSM 5 weather chief

story by Aric Mitchell

Editor’s note: During 2012, The City Wire will publish a series of stories focusing on people and organizations working in our communities to raise awareness of child abuse and reduce abuse figures. 

Close to three decades have passed since a San Jose, Calif., six-year old stepped off his school bus, ready to make the short walk back to his home. The child had returned from a forgettable day of kindergarten, and had little on his mind beyond getting home to his parents and perhaps watching a favorite TV show.

But before he made it to his destination, something happened that would haunt him for the rest of his life. A man took him into the woods close to his house and did things to him he didn’t understand at the time, and to this day, he struggles to make sense of.

Approximately 30 years have passed since Garrett Lewis was sexually abused, and he still struggles with the memory of his attacker. He knows the man was a neighbor, but doesn’t know where the man is, or if he was ever stopped. Lewis admits he doesn’t want to find the man because he doesn’t trust what he might do, though he does state that he has learned to forgive.

Many in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas know Garrett Lewis as Channel 5’s Chief Meteorologist and admitted “Survivor” interruptor during storm season. But he’s also a 6’3”, 240-pound father of one, who gets “pissed off” when he remembers what was taken from him, and when he looks at the growing problem of sexual abuse against children in the area.

Lewis is not the same man you see on television when he’s discussing this subject. He’s determined, emotional, and angry. His passion for meteorology and friendly TV charisma take a back seat.

Lewis lives in Fort Smith, works on the board of the Child Advocacy Center in Benton County, and fights for tougher laws against pedophiles and to raise awareness for a problem that is epidemic. So epidemic, in fact, the National Center for Victims of Crime reports that it affects one in four girls and one in six boys before they reach the age of 18.

Lewis only made it one-third of the way to the maximum age limit before he became a statistic. Rather than stay one, however, he’s ready to exorcise the incident’s power over his life.

“One of the things that helps me in Benton County is that we are a faith group. The mentality isn’t, ‘Hang ‘em high, string ‘em up, rot in hell.’ We all do live in a fallen world, and these people need a savior as much as we do. It’s helped the growth process in me,” Lewis said.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if his forgiveness is conditional, which Lewis readily admits.

“I think when you can learn to forgive your attacker, you take some of the power away from the event. But is it one of those things, where you’re like, ‘Okay, I forgive you, but I still hope you get ran over by a Mack truck’? I don’t know.”

Forgiveness and faith aside, he fears he would “start his prison ministry” should anyone ever hurt his 8-month old son Graham.

Fatherhood brings its own set of challenges to Lewis, who said he was hoping for a girl in the beginning, because he was worried more that “something would happen” to a son. Leftover paranoia from his own childhood nightmare, he admits. His concern has led him to install an alarm system in his home and to acquire a concealed-carry firearm permit.

“I was just worried more about his safety as he grew up, but I’ve had to realize that I can only do all I can do, and hopefully he’ll never have to go through it. But if he does, then it’s, ‘God give us the strength to get through it’,” Lewis said.

After eight months of being a dad, Lewis is adjusting well. He lovingly describes keeping up with his son as “like wrestling with a bear” and laments his unnoticeable weight gain.

“Once you have a kid, you eat Doritos like crazy,” he jokes.

In the second grade, Lewis confessed the attack to his mother. By then, the family was living in Utah, and the assailant was long gone. His mother closed the door of her bedroom, sat down on the bed, and began to cry.

“I feel bad for my mom because I feel like she feels like she let me down,” Lewis said. “I feel bad for my dad, too, because he traveled so much he never knew about it, and I never talked to him about it until recently.”

Shortly after learning about the attack, Celeste Lewis enrolled her son in counseling. The young Garrett Lewis never told his father, though Celeste eventually did. Not until “about two or three years ago” did the two men talk about it. The father admitted he “didn’t know how to bring it up.” Lewis said he “basically wanted to tell him to know he had my back.”

Six months after hearing the news from his son, Lenord Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer and given six months to live, though he continues to fight the disease two years later.

When Lewis grew older, he stopped going to counseling, and continued to struggle with rage issues. As a child, he would “shoot out windows with a BB gun, punch holes in the wall, that sort of thing.” In junior high, he “stayed home sick when they showed the sex films.”

From childhood into adulthood, the behaviors escalated to alcohol abuse and weight issues. Lewis joined 5NEWS in December 1999 and assumed role of chief meteorologist soon after going on-air in 2001. An attendee of Westark College (now the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith), he graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s degree in geosciences with an emphasis in broadcast meteorology.

Lewis also achieved career distinctions with a National Weather Association Seal of Approval (Seal #1581) and the American Meteorological Society's Seal of Approval (Seal #0410878). He has also won multiple “Best Weathercast” awards from the Arkansas Associated Press.

But for Lewis, “it was never enough.”

“When you’re going through this, you’re always trying to find something that will make you happy, and it’s like this God-shaped void in your heart. You think, ‘Once I get married, or turn 21, or get my degrees, or make chief meteorologist, I’ll finally be happy.’ I’d try to set and achieve goals, and it led me to accomplish some things professionally, more of an avoidance thing really, but at Channel 5, you’ve got to be on air and on key every day, and have to put on this facade or face. Meanwhile you’re dying on the inside.”

As the issue grew into his marriage, Lewis again began counseling, a decision he credits largely to his wife.

“My wife has been awesome. For a while after we were married, if she was late getting home I’d assume the worst. I could watch a TV show that dealt with the issue, and my heart would start pounding, and I’d have panic attacks, and I’d jump in the shower, and be shaking, and my breathing would be out of whack. I was having a lot of trouble sleeping at night. So she got me to go back to counseling,” Lewis said.

After resuming his counseling sessions, Lewis was prescribed the drug Ambien, which, he said, would give him amnesia.

“I would wake up writing details of the abuse on paper. It helped me remember things I’d forgotten,” Lewis said.

Lewis admits to being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), noting that it’s like “you’re basically re-breaking a bone that didn’t heal right.”

He’s also undergone a therapy procedure known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to “help desensitize the trauma of the event.”

Now feeling more in control over the incident and its effect on his life, Lewis is ready to raise awareness for the problem.

“People don’t know this is happening in their community. Church groups don’t even want to look at it. You can tell when you talk to one, everyone kind of looks down at the ground. But it’s something that needs to be addressed, because it’s mostly never a stranger. In some cases, it’s an uncle, and with churches, they are always looking for volunteers, and they always want to believe the good in people, so often times it’s like, ‘Great, put him back with the kids,’” Lewis said.

Lewis admits he struggles working directly with children because he’s not “emotionally ready” to see little ones hurting and struggling to understand “the betrayal of the soul” that occurs when they are the victims of sexual abuse. Despite the progress he’s made with his own attack, he still breaks into tears if he hears a child talk about their abuse.

But at the Hamilton House in Fort Smith, his presence is felt. His handprint shares a wall with hundreds of children, who have undergone the same betrayal.

One area child, who suffered the abuse, saw the weatherman’s handprint on the wall, and asked, “Did someone hurt him, too?” When workers confirmed someone had, the child said, “If he can tell his story, then I can tell my story, too.”