Six months ago, I first became aware of how prevalent child sexual abuse was throughout the United States and in our community. Learning that 1 in 5 children are sexually abused before turning the age of 18 was, at first, too difficult for me to comprehend.
After giving this reflection, I became deeply disturbed that I was not aware of this. Why was someone who had two small children, was a Boys & Girls Club coach for nine years, was a longtime volunteer and a Board Member of the United Way, completely unaware of this? Then, after sharing this information with others, I realized the vast majority of adults were also unaware.
I made an assumption that the reason for our ignorance was a lack of courage. I never questioned the compassion of our community, but assumed the reason we did not know about this was that our community was not willing to talk about such an awful problem. Perhaps it was too much for our psyche, whether it was a desire to live in a world of blissful ignorance or it was just a social coping mechanism.
After a visit to the Hamilton House and viewing the thousands of hand prints on the wall from local children who had been victims of child abuse, seeing a 3-year old there with burn marks on her, then going home and staring at my daughter’s hand print when she was the same age, I made a commitment to myself and God that I must do something. With the help of others, I called a meeting to discuss putting on an awareness and education event to make sure our community is aware of this problem, educated on how to prevent child abuse, and to create accountability among one another to protect our community’s children.
Since that meeting, I have been overwhelmed with the courage displayed by our community — leader after leader coming forward to make the dream a reality, victim after victim sharing their story, and advocate after advocate sharing openly how severe this problem is.
Thanks to the generosity of our business community and the willingness of so many to turn their compassion into action, the inaugural “Step Up, Speak Out” Rally was held at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith on April 28.
Privately, my goal was to have 1,000 attend. I don’t know how many attended, but I do know that 2,200 plates were served and we ran out of the 1,200 shirts we gave to each attendee that day. More importantly, because of the leadership, passion, and courage of so many, this event was an overwhelming success. We are now a community fully aware of the problem, much more educated on how to protect our children, and more accountable to one another to protect them.
Preventing child abuse in our community will be a lifelong battle and April 28 was just one day.
However, on April 28 the battle shifted.
No longer will our children and our families be defenseless when under attack. We are ready to defend our children. We are ready to defend our community. This is bigger than one day, because this idea of a one day event has become a MOVEMENT.
I want to apologize for my loss of faith in the courage of our community. We are one with courage! We are willing to step up, speak out, and stand together to protect our children!