Girl Power

By Jen Kocher
A year ago Maria Walker couldn’t imagine telling her story to anyone, let alone delivering it to a roomful of teenage girls. In her mind, her past problems were her own to deal with  and certainly nothing to be shared publicly. 
Then something changed. First, a colleague confessed to her she’d been raped, which hit Maria hard. Then she heard an anecdote about  a 13-year-old girl, who when asked if she was sexually active on a questionnaire for some agency, innocently asked the person in charge if being raped is the same thing as being sexually active.
“No 13-year-old girl should ever have to ask that question,” Maria said. “Period.”
That was her call to action. Having silently endured her own history of sexual abuse, she decided it was time to speak up.
If her story could help one girl, it would be worth it. 
Mostly, she told the group of 10 girls on Saturday, she wants to give them the tools to help themselves if they, too, are in a similar situation.
“If you have been abused, you will know you are not alone,” she said. “If you haven’t been abused, then maybe it will help you have compassion for those who have.”
Pausing to take a few quick breaths as she flutter her hands, Maria got through her painful story. 
Born in Arizona, Maria spent a lot of time with her beloved grandmother and grandfather as she was growing up. During this time, her grandfather began abusing her at age 5, which caused her great shame and confusion. After her father died when she was a young girl, her uncle stepped in and assumed a “father’s role,” in her life, which involved preying on young Maria. This went on until she was 12, at which point she turned to substances to tune out. Throughout this time, the great light that she attributes to saving her was her love of animals and the dream of one day going to college, which she miraculously pulled off despite all the obstacles and supreme self-doubt and hatred standing in her way. From college she met a series of female mentors who not only helped instill in herself a sense of confidence, but also helped push her career, which eventually entailed graduate school and a stint in Alaska, where she studied wildlife biology and set up a new recycling program  run by adults in a homeless shelter, teaching them job and social skills while affording them an opportunity to live on their own.
The moral of the story? Abuse doesn’t define you. What happens to you is not your choice, but it is your choice to like yourself enough to make better choices.
Maria takes a deep breath and admits that telling her story doesn’t necessarily get easier but that’s just part of her journey. 
The girls, who have been quietly listening, look up from their half-eaten sandwiches when Maria asks if any of them have questions.
Dead silence as they stare down at their plates, until one by one the hands go up in the air.
How was Maria able to turn herself around? Does she still talk to her mother? Does she have children and what are her feelings toward men?
The girls listen raptly to Maria’s responses as the conversation continues. Before she spoke, Maria had handed the girls cards asking them anonymously if any of them had been sexually abused or knew anyone who had. Eight out of 10 answered yes. Maria shakes her head in disbelief with a fervent resolve. That’s why she’s doing this; more than ever, it’s time to shop the cycle of abuse by empowering these and other girls with the tools to hit it head on. 
Empowering girls is what this workshop is all about, according to Converse County Coalition Against Violence Victim Advocate Lisa Thalken, who is here to support colleague Monique St. Gelais, who has set up this workshop today. This is the second one they’ve done in Glenrock and today’s record number of teenage attendees attests that the workshop is garnering interest within the community. Their workshop in Douglas earlier this spring also saw record numbers, which makes Lisa and her crew incredibly proud to see that it’s working.
Sexual abuse is just one of the topics they will address in today’s workshop. Body image is another. Later, when Shea Lehnen, yoga instructor and case manager for Solutions for Life in Converse County, asked the girls if any of them hated anything about their body, all 10 hands sprung in the air, bearing out national statistics that 53 percent of girls 13 and under hate something about their body. The percentage jumps at 17 and continues to rise.
Open discussion, support and empowerment for the girls provide the tools and self-confidence to be successful. This involves having fun, too, and enjoying each other’s company with activities and building friendships and strong relationships by which they can grow as healthy girls. That’s what this day is about ultimately, according to Thalken.
As 41-year-old Maria notes, these resources weren’t around when she was young. Back then, the modus operandi was to keep it to yourself and suffer silently.
The shame fell squarely on the victim. Luckily, that’s beginning to change. “There are a lot of things I would have told my 13-year-old self,” Maria says as she encourages them to think about what or how they aspire to be.
“Not that you are a soccer player or a student, but you are creative, compassionate, kind or smart. Dream big.”


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