'That was me when I was a kid'
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The challenge is finding the courage to speak about the unspeakable. But raising one's voice against the scourge of child abuse is key to healing and to prevention, according to those in a position to know.
When Ashland resident Randy Ellison attended the 2009 Abuse Awareness rally in Medford's Vogel Plaza, his plan was to speak out about how he'd suffered at the hands of a trusted preacher. But as he watched the crowd grow and listened to the survivors' stories being read aloud by local community leaders, Ellison's fears about going public got the better of him that day.
"My palms were sweating," Ellison said. "And I realized there was no way I was going to get up and speak at that rally."
So Ellison walked up to the emcee, Dee Anne Everson, director of United Way of Jackson County, handed her a poem he'd written, then bolted for his car.
"I handed it to her. And I exited fast," Ellison said.
Later that day, Everson read his poem and was moved by the painful eloquence it expressed. A few months later, she received a call from Ellison and a request for a face-to-face meeting, she said.
Ellison was sexually abused by a charismatic youth minister, he said. For decades, Ellison had remained silent about the devastation wrought by the trusted leader in his community — a 40-year-old married man with children of his own.
Determined to speak his truth — and with the help of a good therapist — Ellison, now 60, found his public voice, and he uses it to help former and current victims of child sexual abuse within his community and across the state.
Ellison told his story publicly for the first time when he testified before the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010. His personal story was featured in the Mail Tribune that year. Ellison also spoke before the Jackson County commissioners. And he was the last speaker at the hourlong Child Abuse Network rally in April last year.
"Hiding from it doesn't do any good," Ellison said Monday. "Start the conversation. Victims begin to heal, and public (education and awareness) help limit future occurrences of abuse."
To do otherwise, Ellison said, is to participate in the emotional, physical and spiritual sacrifice of that child.
"It is as if you drained the blood of a child and replaced it with fear, dread, misery and loneliness, " Ellison said at the 2010 rally.
Ellison's words caused some listeners to catch their breath and others to wipe away tears. After the rally, men and women asked to shake his hand or offer a hug as they thanked him for coming forward on behalf of abused children.
Everson said speaking about child abuse is one of the hardest things she's had to do.
"But every time I do (speak), I invariably get a call from someone saying, 'What you were taking about, that was me when I was a kid,' " Everson said.
There were 650 reported and founded cases of child abuse in Jackson County in 2010. That is why people continue coming to Vogel Plaza, listening to the stories of the survivors, and creating change for our community's children, Ellison and Everson said.
"When we stand in Vogel Plaza, we are creating a place where people can talk, share and change," Everson said.
Now board president of Oregon Association of Adult Sexual and Incest Survivors, Ellison continues to testify in Salem, advocating for tougher laws against child sex trafficking and other legislative changes, working to provide new tools for law enforcement, Ellison said.
Ellison, along with another child sexual abuse victim, was also asked to speak before a group of Jesuit priests. The goal was to help them develop an appropriate response to victims, and to protect children, he said.
"To be better stewards in their faith and in protecting kids," Ellison said.
On Wednesday, Ellison will be the emcee at a noontime rally in Vogel Plaza at Central Avenue and Main Street, sponsored by the Jackson County Child Abuse Network.
Statistics show that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, said Marlene Mish, director of the Children's Advocacy Center. It is estimated that at least 39 million Americans are survivors of child sexual abuse. Using that number, one can estimate that more than 25,000 residents of Jackson County were or are victims of child sexual abuse, she said.
Experts say it will take two to three generations of sustained public effort before we can eradicate child abuse, Ellison said.
"That's a long time and a lot of pain. So let's get going on it," Ellison said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.