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A few years ago, Randy McGibeny, director of programs for ChildSafe at the time, said these words to a group of bloggers. We’d come to the ChildSafe offices to learn how we could help spread the word about Cardboard Kids, a new initiative to increase awareness of child abuse in San Antonio.
It’s happening everywhere. Abused kids are your neighbors. It’s you. It’s me.”
Up until Randy uttered those words, I felt empowered and strong: By attending the meeting, I was learning how to help kids and families affected by child abuse. But honestly, I also felt distanced from the topic. Child abuse is horrible. But it happens to other people, right?
The statistics are sickening and heart-wrenching. Of course I wanted to do my part to bring awareness to the issue of child abuse in our community. I wanted to help families find ChildSafe and their services which would help them begin the healing process. But when I heard Randy’s words, “It’s you. It’s me,” and I heard him describe various definitions of abuse, something in me awoke. One description was familiar. I felt a punch to my gut as air flew out of my lungs and I struggled to take in another breath.
“It’s you. It’s me.”
Long buried feelings of shame and confusion hurtled to the surface. My face became red and hot. I bit my lip, hard, to keep the tears pooling in my eyes from falling down my cheeks. I couldn’t let anyone know. Because although I’d spent decades throwing dirt over a big hole in my soul, it was still there, lying in wait below the surface. And I’d just fallen in.
Once upon a time there was a little girl. She was nine. She was bold. She was funny. She was creative. She was confident. She was healthy. She loved to play outside with her friends, running up and down the neighborhood streets without supervision, as only children of the 70s could do. No one could tell this little girl what to do. She was independent. She was fierce. She was a force. She always wanted to be in charge.
One night, her parents left her in the care of a babysitter. The boy, a teenager, lived across the street. Usually, if the girl’s parents went out, his mother would look after her. But not tonight. The neighbor lady was busy so, she sent her son instead.
He was 16 and handsome with brown hair and long, dark lashes. He was funny and charming. The girl liked him. She thought he was cool. But that night, everything changed. He touched the girl in off-limits places. He exposed himself to her. He kissed her and told her shocking things nine-year-old girls aren’t meant to know. He was a child himself but still he took away her innocence. He stole her childhood. It never came back.
The girl began to stay indoors. She watched too much TV. She was sullen. She was scared but she didn’t know why. She ate too many Cheetos. She started to get pudgy. She no longer wanted to play or run. She became afraid of everything. She was different.
That nine-year-old girl was me.
This is the first time I’ve told that story publicly. I spent years confused about this incident. I never labeled it as child abuse. I minimized what happened to me: I wasn’t physically hurt, there was no obvious violence, so how could it be abuse? It took me a long time to see myself as a victim. It took the better part of the last two years to understand that what happened was not my fault. Randy’s words put me on a journey to discover that what happened to me matters. It’s a journey I’m still on, as I work to understand how that night ultimately shaped who I became.
Our stories have power, whether we realize it or not. They’re important. They mean something to us but sometimes they mean as much or more to someone else. Telling some stories takes immense courage and we can’t always find that courage on our own.
Recently, when ChildSafe gathered bloggers to discuss the launch of the next year of Cardboard Kids, one of their staff members stood up and told her story. It was a harrowing tale of a childhood filled with violence, neglect, abuse, and trauma, suffered at the hands of adults who should have, instead, been offering her safety and unconditional love. I’d met this staff member before. She always has a beautiful smile on her face. She’s got an amazing, encouraging, comforting way with children and her job revolves around helping them, every day. My own kids know her and they love her for what she taught them: how to stay safe in any situation. But hearing about her violent past and seeing that she not only survived it, but she now thrives in spite of it (or, maybe, because of it?), humbled me. Her courage and ability to share her difficult story with us gave me the courage, finally, to tell my own. Maybe it can help someone find their own bit of courage.
And while my story is not nearly as horrible as what other victims have endured, I’ve learned that trauma is trauma. And it takes what it takes for each of us to understand, learn from, and ultimately overcome that trauma. I was lucky. I had a supportive family who sought help for me. They had no idea about the abuse (to this day I’ve never said anything about it to my parents). But the confusion and loss I suffered at nine years old showed up in my life as anxiety, issues with food, poor choices in relationships, and an unhealthy experimentation with alcohol during my teen years. The resulting difficult and sometimes dangerous situations drove my parents to find help for me.
Through their love and support, and the guidance of a few good therapists, I found some peace by dealing with the symptoms the abuse produced. But it’s only now, over the last two years, that I can attribute those symptoms and issues directly to the night my abuser took my childhood. Finally, I’m also able to look back over my life and see that I have been resilient. I’ve successfully moved beyond what happened to me and the problems it caused. But it took me a long time to get there. I wish that when I was a child I’d had the courage to tell an adult about what happened and that I could have found a place like ChildSafe to help me heal the feelings of confusion and shame long before they turned into anxiety and doubt.
Thankfully, ChildSafe provides this help to Bexar County kids today. Through counseling and other programs, they offer abused children the ability to become resilient, to lead better, healthier lives, and to stop the cycle of abuse.
A now annual event that kicks off Child Abuse Prevention Month each April, Cardboard Kids placed out and about in our community remind us that child abuse occurs all around us. It’s happening in every zip code. It’s happening everywhere. Every day in the U.S., five children die from child abuse. Every 10 seconds, child services receives a report of abuse.
Thanks to Cardboard Kids, more children and families in our community are receiving the help they need. Last year, ChildSafe served 4,300 clients. That’s 16% more than they served the year before. Cardboard Kids works! Those cute, clever, creatively-decorated cardboard children, each one representing an abused child, are getting the word out, all over San Antonio, that we must end child abuse.
When you see a Cardboard kid around San Antonio on Thursday, April 6 (and beyond), be sure to help spread the word by:
1. Taking a photo of the Cardboard Kid.
2. Tagging your photo using the hashtag #CardboardKidsSA.
3. Sharing the photo on your social media sites (and changing your profile pic to the pic of that Cardboard Kid!).
4. Following ChildSafe on Twitter and Facebook for updates and more information.
Thank you to Valero, the title sponsor of Cardboard Kids.
Child Abuse Resources:
Keep this number for the Child Abuse Hotline for the State of Texas handy: 800-252-5400. When you call this number, CPS starts an investigation. You’re not accusing anyone when you call the hotline. You’re simply asking for an investigation to begin to check on the safety and welfare of a child.
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