Margot Wilder wants the community to know there is a problem. And though she has hope, there is a lot of work yet to be done.
Child abuse is not only a national concern but also one that hits home right here in Alachua County, Fla.
UNICEF ranks the United States among the lowest of industrialized nations with respect to the wellbeing of children.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, about three million reports of child abuse are made every year in the United States. Because the reports can include multiple children, roughly six million children are victimized, and five children suffer abuse-related deaths every day.
“Child abuse is not easy to talk about,” said Wilder, the director of development for Gainesville’s Child Advocacy Center. “It’s not a fun subject. And because we are committed to children’s privacy and confidentiality and their safety, we can’t take a child out into the community and say, ‘Hey, look at this! Look at how well they’re doing!’”
“People know abuse is happening,” she said. They just can’t stomach it. And the cause often goes unspoken.
But Wilder has a message: The center’s efforts are working for our community’s children.
“We are making a difference – a measureable difference – in the lives of children and families in our community on a daily basis,” she said. “And it’s on a pretty large scale.
Nine percent of children in Alachua County are involved in child abuse investigations. Of the millions of cases reported in the U.S. each year, 4,000 reports are made in this county alone, with half of those found to be verified cases of abuse or neglect. It is in the wake of these cases that the center comes into the lives of about 1,200 children and non-offending family members per year.
Children from all backgrounds – socioeconomically, ethnically or otherwise – are affected, and because of the reach of abuse, the Child Advocacy Center also provides services for the siblings and non-offending caregivers of victims.
“Child abuse really knows no bounds,” Wilder said. “And it’s something we all can do something about.”
The Child Advocacy Center in Gainesville and others like it all over the country serve children between the ages of 0 and 18 as well as developmentally disabled adults, though on a much smaller scale. Victims have experienced a range of disturbing abuses, including not only physical, emotional and sexual abuse but also cases of neglect, drug endangerment and human trafficking. Children who have witnessed violence at home or in the community can also seek treatment through the center.
Wilder said the Center has been successful in funding programs and program staff, allowing the center to meet the growing needs of the community’s children.
“But as other local nonprofit organizations know”, she said, the challenge is in finding money for operating costs – the costs that ultimately keep the lights on and the doors open for those in need. The cause can be difficult to sell without being able to show a face to go along with the problem, and so, donors can be hard to come by despite the Center’s positive relationship with the community it serves and those who can give back.
The Child Advocacy Center looks to the community for the help it needs to help children.[MW1] Those needs extend beyond funds. Those who can’t afford monetary contributions can volunteer at events or on committees. The Center also accepts donations of juice boxes and snacks, which are given to the children daily, and other comforts, like toys, blankets, clothes and books – small things that can make a big difference for the children who receive them.
The Center welcomes members of the public to schedule appointments to tour our community’s facility and better understand the safe environment the staff works so hard to create.
“Come and take a tour,” Wilder said, “and see what we do with your own eyes and see how you can help.”
In a continuing effort to invite the public in and attract attention and funds for the victims of child abuse, the Center will host its fifth Gainesville Gone Austin – its signature fundraising event – on Nov. 7.
Since its first year, GGA has raised over $250,000 for the Center – all of the profits, from ticket sales to money earned from auction purchases, go to support the center and its work with children and families.
“Every single dollar counts and makes the center more sustainable, able to keep our doors open for longer and provide the services that are so critically important to children in our community,” Wilder said.
Deidra “DeeDee” Smith, founding director of the Gainesville CAC and current emeritus board member, was one of the creators of GGA. With the help of Jo Wiggins, Carrie Lee, Carletta Herring, Gwen Howard and Beth Yates – the original brains behind the fundraiser – the casual, country theme that defines GGA was born. Smith said they wanted the event to be fun, casual and easy for folks to attend without the pressures of what to wear and how to get there – it’s a time for blue jeans and a great cause, not fancy clothes and limousines.
In the years since it first began, GGA has been an undeniable success, and Smith sees it growing even more in years to come.
“We know that people do it because it is a fun event to attend,” she said. “But it’s also because they know the great works that the Center does and the difference they make in the lives of the abused children in our community.”
The children working with the Child Advocacy Center do not attend the event for confidentiality purposes. Wilder explained how asking the children to do so would undermine the center’s efforts to create a safe, comfortable association with its facility and staff.
Yet though they are not present, the children are not forgotten, and hope for their futures sets the tone for this respected event.
“I don’t know how to describe the atmosphere there,” Wilder said wistfully. “With all that we’re able to do for the kids in our community, it’s hopeful. Maybe someday we’ll be able to meet the needs of all of the children that need our help.”
GGA will be held at the Hitchcock Farm, owned by CAC Board Member Alan Hitchcock, at Santa Fe River Ranch in Alachua
Wilder said she loves to capitalize on the beauty of the venue, offering an abundance of outdoor seating and fire pits across the property. To add to the cozy, “Old Florida” feel of the party, this year’s fundraiser will also feature local acoustic artists.
In the end, it’s all about the children. Their needs have attracted the love and care of Child Advocacy Center staff members and the donors who graciously give to those in pain and need of healing.
Children benefit from developmentally appropriate forensic interviews and from being able to tell what happened to them in a child-friendly place with lots of support. Children also participate in play therapy services and their caregivers get the support they need during this very stressful time.
“The goal of the Center is to lessen the trauma of the investigative experience for children and ensure they have everything they need to heal,” according to Child Advocacy Center President and CEO, Sherry Kitchens.
Though bringing her face-to-face with devastating cases on a daily basis, Wilder said one of the greatest pleasures that comes with the job is seeing a child who was once shy and uncertain in the center eventually grow comfortable enough to enjoy the snacks and play with the toys without a second thought.
“We want children to come to the center and not mind having to come back for therapy services,” she said. “We want them to feel safe and comfortable here.”
To donate, please visit www.childadvocacycentergainesville.org for a detailed wish list.