Child abuse prevention focus of Step Up, Speak Out rallies

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 78 views 

It was a saga that captured the interest of people across America two years ago – the arrest and trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on multiple counts of molestation of minor boys.

While watching coverage of the trial, First National Bank of Fort Smith President and CEO Sam T. Sicard heard a statistic that stuck with him. One in four females and one in six males have been sexually abused before turning 18 years old.

"I had no idea. I mean I was a Girls and Boys Club basketball coach, football coach. (I) worked with kids, had two kids of my own and I was clueless. I wanted to find out if that's really true."

Sicard said he did some online research, confirmed the facts and started learning about how children in the Fort Smith area were affected by abuse.

"I got connected with Jackie Hamilton at the Hamilton House here in Fort Smith, a child safety center that sees these children that have been abused, the vast majority of which are sexually abused," he said. "And she told me over 600 kids are going through, just from this region, are going through the Hamilton House and the vast majority are sexually abused."

It was at that point that Sicard decided to do something about what some have called an epidemic in American society. What he created was an organization called, "Step Up, Speak Out!" The goal of the organization is to raise awareness of abuse, both physical and sexual.

The organization hosted block parties with free food and drinks, along with entertainment, on Wednesday (Oct. 9) at seven different sites across Fort Smith, Greenwood and Lavaca with another block party planned for tomorrow in Poteau, Okla.

Sicard said he expected some 3,000 children and their families to attend the events, including 700 at the block party he attended at Tilles Elementary in Fort Smith.

"We're trying to equip parents and kids (with information about) how to report," he said. "It's hard to measure why they reported, but we hope with this outreach that we're educating them."

For children in abusive situations, it is important to come to an event like this and learn about how to get assistance.

"A lot of kids, they're either scared or if they're really young, they may not know what's normal and what's not normal if it's been going on all their life. So we want to at least educate them and make them aware and (let them know) we want them to report and it's safe to report and we'll address it if you just tell someone."

Overcoming the fear that keeps many victims from reporting is part of the reason for the block parties, as well, according to volunteer Daysi Rosales, a branch manager for First National Bank.

"The block parties are just one of the ways that we have found to make children and those that have been victims to feel comfortable because our main goal is to make everyone feel welcome and to let them know that there is help. There is help for anybody that has been through this. There is no (reason) why someone should keep this and grow and live with it," she said. "You know it's something horrible and I just cannot just see a person living their life and holding all that stuff back."

As part of the block parties, volunteers and participants were wearing shirts with the numbers of hotlines victims, or an adult who is aware of abuse, could call to report it.

When a victim or an adult calls, Sicard said the calls go to the state police, who investigate claims and remove the victim from the abuse.

"That's the best way that we think to report," he said.

The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-482-5964.