The rain couldn't dampen the spirit of hundreds of supporters on Saturday (April 27) as they gathered on the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith campus for the second annual "Step Up! Speak Out! Together We Can End Child Abuse!" community rally.
Working to bring awareness to the problem of child abuse, the group welcomed nearly a thousand children and parents for a day focused on both fun, and on educating the public about the issue.
Admission to the rally was free and families were invited to enjoy lunch and the numerous activities set up around the campus green. Children played games, had their faces painted and made arts and crafts. Vendors handed out t-shirts, bracelets and other prizes. Clowns with balloon animals were also on-hand, as were university personalities, Miss UAFS and Numa, the school mascot.
Throughout the event, special guests took to the microphone to share information about abuse and about the mission of "Step Up! Speak Out!"
Rhonda Adams addressed the children in attendance teaching them ways to protect themselves from predators. She also gave tips on how to stay safe in public and among family and friends.
“Step Up, Speak Out!” was formed in early 2012 by Sam Sicard, president of First National Bank of Fort Smith. Sicard was inspired to start the awareness initiative after learning the alarming statistics related to child abuse.
According to the organization, one in four girls and one in six boys will become victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18. "Step Up! Speak Out!" is committed to raising awareness of physical and sexual abuse in the Fort Smith area, with the goal of minimizing, and eventually eliminating the incidence of child abuse.
The group held its first community rally in 2012, followed by series of block parties and other smaller scale sessions focused on educating children, their parents and the general public about abuse.
Saturday's rally brought together a number of area non-profits and other family and child-centered organizations to showcase the local resources available to individuals. Representatives from The Call, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), The Boys and Girls Club, United Way and several other groups participated in the vendor fair.
Many local churches and government agencies also took part in the event. The Sebastian County Sheriff's Department provided parents the opportunity to create updated safety ids and records for their children.
The Fort Smith Noon Exchange Club, one of the many civic groups in attendance, was proud to be a part of the rally. Buddy Acoach, District President, said his group is very committed to the mission of "Step Up! Speak Out!"
"Since 1979, the issue of child abuse has been a major focus for Noon Exchange," said Acoach. "Our club provides resources for parents, such as the Parent Aide Program to help support families and work to prevent abuse."
The Noon Exchange is working with the Hamilton House in Fort Smith to start a new prevention program, targeted at helping educate parents and lower the risk of abuse in homes.
During the rally, a special adult session on child abuse was held in the Weidman center on campus. "The Investigative Process" focused on educating parents on ways to recognize and prevent abuse from happening to their child.
Entertainment was provided by a number of special guests, including representatives from the Young Actors Guild. Members of the drama group gave a sneak preview of their upcoming show, Big, singing a medley of tunes from the production. Later in the day, the group "Just the Chips" performed for rally-goers.
To get the crowd amped up, the UAFS cheerleaders led the group in a number of chants, including a "Step Up! Speak Out!" cheer involving the entire audience.
"Step Up! Speak Out!," which operates under the umbrella of United Way of Fort Smith Area, relies on the support of volunteers in the community to help carry out its mission.
"This is a wonderful organization that is helping bring awareness to a difficult issue," said Dee Long, United Way resource development and marketing director. "These individuals are making a difference in the lives of families all over the River Valley.”