When the Penn State sex abuse scandal erupted, the world watched as allegations of sodomy came to light involving former Nittany Lions assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and a 10-year old boy. In weeks, Sandusky would face 40 additional counts of sex abuse spanning a 15-year period. In Fort Smith, First National Bank President and CEO Sam Sicard sat, horrified, watching it all unfold on ESPN.
The father of two young children (a 5-year old daughter and 2-year old boy) could not fathom how Sandusky, if guilty, could do such things, and he couldn't shake one particularly flooring statistic that left him feeling angry and disgusted.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, approximately one in four girls and one in six boys experience sexual abuse by the age of 18.
“What really hit home was that I was a Boys and Girls Club coach for nine years, and coached hundreds of kids. By those statistics, many were abused, but I was ignorant to the problem,” Sicard said.
Following the sobering statistic, the bank president talked “to several friends on Facebook and email,” and realized that “as community leaders, we have a responsibility to protect our community’s children,” he said.
Sicard then sent out 100 emails to friends and acquaintances wanting “to open a dialog” about what was being done at the community level to make a difference in the lives of children.
“I got a tremendous response and found out a few good friends were sexually abused as children. It was really moving to me,” he said.
At the time of the response, Sicard was acting chairperson of the United Way, and along with the organization’s Executive Director Tom Minton, was in a position to do something about it.
“We sent out 25 invitations to the first meeting (held on Jan. 31, 2012),” Sicard said. “Thirty seven showed up.”
Jackie Hamilton of Hamilton House was one of the attendees. Having seen 647 sexual abuse cases come through the Hamilton House in 2011 alone, Hamilton noted the center has helped nearly 1,600 since opening its doors in Fort Smith more than two years ago.
By the original statistic that motivated Sicard to act, around 16,000 people within the Fort Smith city limits have been victims of sexual abuse.
“If you don’t think you have a close friend or a co-worker or a relative that’s been sexually abused, you’re wrong, unless you don’t have any human contact at all. And it’s not just poor folks who are victims. It happens everywhere. It’s scary and you can’t 100 percent prevent it, but you can lessen the risk,” Sicard said.
Awareness is the first obstacle that Sicard and the growing effort are starting to address. The group has planned an event to support victims of sexual abuse, "encourage them, and raise awareness," Sicard said, scheduled for April 28. Entitled "Step Up, Speak Out: A Rally to End Child Abuse," the event will take place on a Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) Campus Green.
Contingencies are reportedly "in place in the event of inclement weather," he added.
“It’s a taboo subject people don’t want to bring up. In reality, when we don’t want to talk about it, we’re creating a problem and reinforcing the practice, all because it’s too much for our psyche. That attitude creates a perfect venue for predators,” Sicard said.
Sicard met with Fort Smith Schools, child advocacy specialists, the Department of Human Services, law enforcement, pastors, and a variety of shelters across the area “to see what they are doing for prevention.” He was impressed by many of the efforts.
“But the biggest groups we’re missing are parents and the general community at large, who don’t have kids but may be around children and may have the opportunity to prevent something from happening,” he said.
Aside from raising awareness, Sicard also hopes the efforts of his and other community leaders, who have climbed aboard, can lead to healing for victims of sexual abuse.
“What happens when you’re a child affects you for life. We’re hoping this event (April 28) will also help the amount of shame victims feel carrying the burden and not being comfortable with anyone knowing about it. If they want to share their story with others, or even if they don’t want to, we want people to feel like they can come out and feel like part of something positive.”
The community is already showing "overwhelming support," Sicard said, and the grassroots effort has also attracted attention from Northwest Arkansas.
First National Bank of Rogers Regional President Guy Cable recently stated in an email to Sicard: "I keep saying this, but I don't think you realize what an impact you and Fort Smith community leaders are accomplishing in such a short period of time! The awareness event that you are putting on may be difficult to quantify the success, but you have already achieved something greater that is intangible."
The bank is owned by Fort Smith-based First Bank Corp.
Cable continued: "You have all agencies and government offices in Fort Smith communicating together with a unified goal and are in the process of tearing down unseen territorial boundaries. I guarantee that the amazing collaboration that currently exists was not the case before you championed the cause. This is the reality for a number of communities in Arkansas, and Fort Smith will serve as the model going forward."
Fort Smith regional pastors — including Don Hutchings of Evangel Temple, Kevin Thompson of Community Bible Church, and Marty Sloane of Harvest Time Tabernacle, along with "15 committed" in Crawford County — have agreed to organize special sermons raising awareness to the issue the Sunday before the event. That event, "Step Up Sunday," will run on April 22. More churches are expected to jump aboard prior to the date.
One last message, Sicard shares with predators: “I don’t want to be too cavalier here, but this event and everything that comes after it is also to make sure pedophiles know what we’re doing. We are going to try to be proactive and stop this from happening. We want to protect our community’s children. We will educate children and parents, and do everything in our power to prevent, identify, and stop this from happening. And that’s something the perpetrators of these crimes should be concerned about.”