Talking about childhood sexual abuse is uncomfortable, but that doesn't stop Shari Hammond from speaking up about this crime, which strikes one in four girls and one in six boys in this country before the age of 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She knows what can happen if she doesn't say anything -- because it happened to her, twice.
Hammond was sexually abused as a young girl for several years but didn't report it until she was a teenager. She healed, grew up, married, had a daughter of her own, and divorced.
Four years ago, the heartbreaking tale repeated itself. Hammond's 15-year-old daughter, Corri Smith, came to her after prom and said she'd been abused for three years by her father while on weekend visits. Immediately, they called the police. Corri's father was convicted of sexual child abuse and sentenced to five years in jail. Mother and daughter sought help at the now-defunct Specialized Trauma Treatment and Recovery (STTAR) Center.
"It was too weird that lightning would strike the same house twice," says Hammond, of Columbia. "I knew I needed to do something."
Last November, she launched a non-profit, Shari's Promise, to "train people how to recognize signs (of sexual abuse) and how to respond responsibly when children report it," says Hammond, who owns George of New York Hair Salon, in Columbia. Her goal is to train 2,014 people by the end of 2011.
"People think it's a low socio-economic problem. It's not. It crosses all boundaries," says Hammond.
In addition to the STTAR Center, Hammond contacted the Darkness to Light Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing childhood sexual abuse by providing information and resources on the crime. The organization offers a certified training program, Stewards of Children, with the goal of spreading the word across America through local facilitators.
Now, Hammond trains groups of all sizes wherever and whenever she can -- at a local hotel, the police department, people's homes and churches. Using a video, an interactive workbook and open discussion time, Hammond teaches the different kinds of sexual abuse, the societal conditions most prevalent in an abusive situation and how to recognize the signs of abuse. Participants also learn how to ask questions to help children speak up, how to respond appropriately when abuse is discovered and how to extend long-term compassion to survivors in their recovery.
Columbia resident Kate Daney took part in the training through her church because she wanted to teach Sunday school and thought it would be helpful. At first the church didn't require it. Now it does, says Daney.
"It's time we started protecting our children. The more we talk about it, the better off we'll be, I think," says Daney.
Trainees must be at least 18 years old. Hammond doesn't require a fee; instead, she asks for a $20 donation from each registrant. "I'll never turn away someone who wants to be trained," she says.
For more information on Shari's Promise and the next Stewards of Children training session, go to www.sharispromise.com.