It has taken time for Sarah to be reincarnated into the confident and articulate teen the world sees today.
For months after she was sexually abused by a family member, she felt like a shell of her former self. The type of intense fear and pain she experienced would overwhelm most adults, let alone a fourth-grader.
The Kennewick 9-year-old would hide in her house and was afraid to take a shower. A simple word would bring memories of the abuse rushing back.
She felt isolated and confused while trying to wrap her mind around what happened.
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“I think it was hard because I had to grow up at such a young age,” said the girl, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her identity.
Police eventually arrested a man in the case. He committed suicide days later.
As Sarah began the long journey to rebuild her life, she and her mother found solace in the Support Advocacy and Resource Center, or SARC. The local organization helps survivors of sexual assault and crime victims.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention month. SARC has scheduled events all month to honor survivors, including a display starting next week of wooden figures that represent the 469 cases of abuse investigated last year by local law enforcement.
After Sarah was abused, she met weekly with a counselor to talk through the abuse and her struggles.
Kids at school eventually found out, leaving her feeling like she was constantly being judged and fighting to get rid of the stigma associated with it.
“I felt like it was a burden on my family,” she said.
With the help of her SARC counselor, she started to become more comfortable talking about what happened and developing coping skills. Outside of therapy, she talked extensively with her family.
She would draw pictures of what she remembered, then would put them through a shredder, watching as the image was torn to pieces.
There was a jar filled with strips of paper, each with a coping skill that Sarah would pull out when she was having trouble.
She also focused on breathing exercises, and the family got a dog, which Sarah credits in her rehabilitation.
By the time she was 11, she began telling her story to others. She started with SARC officials and soon moved to larger groups. Today, the teen has told her story publicly about a dozen times.
Sarah said opening up about the abuse has empowered her.
“I have been able to begin my normal life again,” she said. “I learned to accept it and move on. It’s still hard.”
Whenever Sarah is done speaking, she usually sees her mother teary-eyed.
“She has changed my life,” her mom said. “I have learned more from her than anyone. I draw my strength from her.”
Dealing with the abuse and seeing the toll it took has inspired her mother to help other survivors.
She knew that sexual abused happened, but she never thought it would affect someone in her family, especially one of her children.
She said parents need to be aware that abuse can happen to anyone and having an educated discussion with kids can help prevent it.
“People shouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about it because it does happen so often, unfortunately,” she said.
Sarah encourages anyone who is hesitant about reporting abuse to talk to someone immediately, before emotions like the ones she battled become too much.
“You need to find good ways to cope with it and not bottle it in,” she said. “Or else it will explode down the road.”
The Little People Project, the wooden displays representing abuse, will be up at Columbia Basin College April 6-7, at Washington State University Tri-Cities April 8-9 and at Columbia Center mall April 10-11.
A crime victims walk, Strides of Strength, is planned April 18 starting at the Lord of Life Church on North Columbia Center Boulevard in Kennewick.
For more information, call 509-374-5391.
Kids’ Haven also plans a benefit auction starting next week to support counseling and advocacy services for abuse victims. The online auction starts April 10 and runs through May.
To view the items, go to www.biddingforgood.com/SARC.
An auction is from 6 to 9 p.m. May 2 at the Richland Community Center.
Tickets are $50 and can be purchased by calling 509-374-5391.