Note from me: For faithful readers who may have been wondering what I’ve been up to, when not writing for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive, here you go. I am one of five reporters for School News Network, which covers the students and teachers of Kent County public schools, and the magic they create in classrooms. Here is one of the more memorable students I’ve met. Like so many others, she inspires me with her courage and singularity of purpose. You might be surprised how many students like her are out there. I invite you to read about this remarkable young woman, and the many other students who give me great hope for the future.
What a night it was. Cascades of glittering lights. Gorgeous gowns and snappy suits. Fine sculpted centerpieces on the tables. And two talented teens dancing elegantly as more than 200 guests watched.
The teens were Alicia Monteith and her brother, Alex, who are accomplished ballroom dancers. Alicia had organized this benefit event, called the Inspire Ball, in a beautiful banquet hall last November. The reason was simple but powerful: to help others who had endured sexual assault, as she had.
The ball raised more than $9,000 for the Children’s Assessment Center, a nonprofit agency that helped Alicia recover from being assaulted when she was 11 and to prosecute her abuser. With the ball and her previous benefit efforts, the Northview High School senior has raised $55,000 for the center’s work in helping child victims of sexual assault.
From victim of a traumatic event, Alicia has grown into an articulate voice for other victims and an advocate for breaking the cycle of sexual abuse.
“I want to help as many kids as I can,” said Alicia, 17, her soft voice belying her steely determination. “God made me strong enough to be able to tell (of the assault) in the first place. I think he also had it happen to me so I could help other kids.”
Not Just Surviving, but Thriving
The Inspire Ball was just the latest of Alicia’s fundraising efforts for the Children’s Assessment Center. Starting in July 2013 she began running in 5k races and soliciting sponsors. She quickly eclipsed her original goal of raising $1,000, the approximate cost of serving one child at the agency. By year’s end she had raised close to $14,000.
Alicia has raised more funds for the CAC than any other individual, enabling it to provide a full range of services to 55 children, said Executive Directory Pam Doty-Nation.
“We at the CAC are her biggest fans, not only because she has such a giving spirit but also the joy she brings as she thrives and grows beyond simply surviving,” Doty-Nation said.
Alicia has appeared on Maranda’s TV show “Where You Live” and was interviewed for a Grand Rapids Press story. By speaking publicly about her assault, she encourages other young people to report theirs, said her former counselor at CAC.
“The fact Alicia is willing to stand up and say ‘I survived this and so can you,’ it makes other children she comes in contact with a lot more likely to come forward with what has happened to them,” said Powers, now a therapist with Jenison Psychological Services. “I’m just incredibly proud of her. She didn’t just survive, she thrived.”
About one in four girls, and one in six boys, is sexually assaulted before her or his 18th birthday, but only 15 to 20 percent of them ever tell anyone, Powers said. Alicia dispels stereotypes of who sexually abused children are, she added, showing “It can happen to any child.”
Northview High School Principal Mark Thomas said he admires Alicia’s forward-looking focus and her choice to be an advocate.
“I believe that Alicia grows and helps herself through her service and leadership efforts,” Thomas said. “She is wise beyond her years, and her attitude is always positive and optimistic.”
Inspiring Others to Tell Their Stories
Alicia’s attitude is bolstered by a strong faith and close family. Her parents, Kip and Jennifer, have supported her public advocacy. Jennifer told Alicia she was concerned about the risks of going public, but said her daughter insisted, “I don’t care. It’s not about me. It’s about the other kids.”
“My daughter’s my hero,” said Jennifer, who also has spoken on behalf of the CAC. “I’m proud of her for being so strong, not pulling back and not being afraid. It’s incredibly brave, what she’s doing.”
Alicia said she was willing to be open about her experience “to give other kids the courage and inspiration to know it’s OK to tell their story,” and so they could get the help they need. “It is such a hush-hush problem that many people don’t realize how big of a problem it is.”
Alicia has publicly told her story of being sexually abused one night by an adult family friend. She said she didn’t tell anyone for nearly a year because the man’s daughter was “practically my sister, and sisters don’t take each other’s dads away.”
But after confiding in another friend, Alicia was persuaded she needed to tell someone. After talking in vague terms to her mother, she was eventually referred to the Children’s Assessment Center. It was there she first told a detective the whole story.
“That was the first time I’d really seen her smile in over a year,” recalled her mother. “She just had the biggest smile on her face, like, ‘Finally, I’m free.’”
Added Alicia, “There’s no words to explain how good it felt to not have to hold that in anymore.”
Planning on a Life of Leadership
In nearly two years of counseling at the CAC, Alicia went from being a victim to a survivor. The center helped her the most simply by listening, she said.
“Having someone listen to you, trust and believe you, is the biggest thing to help a victim,” she said, quietly but firmly. “That’s exactly what they do there.”
As Alicia prepared to testify in her abuser’s trial, Powers recalled, “She looked at me and said, ‘Susan, this is just awful. I’ve got to bring something good out of this.’ I said, ‘Alicia, you’ll find a way.’ And she did.”
Alicia later forgave her abuser — a key step for victims, she said: “I was able to step away and say, ‘OK, that’s in the past now. I can move forward.’”
After graduating from the CAC program, she resolved to give something back for all it had done for her and her family. In July 2013 she sent out letters to more than 100 friends and family asking them to sponsor her in a run per month, hoping to raise $1,000 by December. She got more than twice that in two weeks. Further donations included an anonymous gift of $10,000, through a family friend who had been abused without telling for 40 years.
Since Alicia began speaking and raising funds, several other abuse victims have confided in her including students. On a recent morning at school, a girl who was having problems with bullying gave Alicia a hug for helping her. “You’ll get through it,” Alicia told her.
After graduating this spring, Alicia plans to study nonprofit leadership and psychology at Grand Valley State University. She wants to head an agency that provides “a safe haven” for abused children and adults.
At the Inspire Ball, she told her story to the finely dressed guests. Her testimony was laced with biblical quotations, as when Jesus tells his followers that faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.
“My goal is to empower kids like me to become survivors,” she told the crowd. “Together we can save lives. Together we can change the world. And together we can move mountains.”
Then, to the sound of a standing ovation, she rushed off to change into her dancing clothes.