| By Kiesa Kay |
As a girl, Mary Edwards got hurt. Her parents weren’t her perpetrators, but she ended up in foster care. She learned to hide her tears and smile even when she felt full of pain.“When I was growing up, I was on a television show called Sandy’s Clubhouse,” Mary said. “I was such an inwardly sad child, but like a clown, I could paint on a big smile. I had to paint it on, because I did not have a true smile in my heart. I learned I could make other people smile, too. Now, at last, I don’t have to paint a smile. My smile is genuine, because it comes from healing.”
Mary has strong Christian faith and a loving extended family, but healing didn’t happen overnight. She worked through deep feelings of shame, sorrow, blame, and anger. She felt fury at the situations, the perpetrators, and the non-protective adults who allowed the neglect and sexual abuse to continue.
“I admit that I thought about revenge, even though the Bible says vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” Mary said. “Instead of hurting people who hurt people, I decided to help people who have been hurt. Every time I help someone else, I am showing the devil that I control my life, and he doesn’t.”
Mary’s kindness has taken many forms. Mary founded an organization, Be A Voice 4 Kids, in Polk County, N.C., with a mission to educate, prevent, and heal child abuse through spiritual strength, peer support, and inspiration.
“I decided as a young adult that someday I would tell others what had happened to me, and I knew I would help other people, but it took thirty years of marriage before I felt secure enough in myself to speak out,” Mary said. “Then, one day, I learned that some children who meant a lot to me had been harmed, and I knew I had to do everything in my power to stop that harm, not only for them, but for all children. It was time.”
She began speaking at public events and churches, telling her truth. She gave a powerful speech at a Chosen Chicks for Christ Conference, and she motivated other volunteers to join her at tables at public family events, such as the Columbus Fourth of July celebration and Green Creek Heritage Days. Mary worked with churches and social service agencies on Pinwheels for Prevention displays and an awareness walk. She also became a Darkness to Light facilitator, leading workshops on prevention and detection of childhood sexual abuse. The neglected little girl with the painted-on smile has grown into a strong activist for children’s safety.
“Whenever I start to feel unworthy to do this work, a friend or a family member or even a stranger says something that reminds me that I cannot quit,” Mary said. “One time, a lady in a bank told me that she wished I’d been there when she was a kid. And I realized, as long as there are kids who need to be heard, I will be a voice for kids.”
Be A Voice 4 Kids got 501c3 nonprofit status in 2016, and the group’s first formal board meeting occurred in January 2017. Mary led that board meeting, surrounded by others who also had spent their entire adult lives working for justice and safety for other people. The county sheriff, the chief investigative officer, the district attorney, a banker, a magistrate, community entrepreneurs, and the director of social services have joined the Board of Be A Voice 4 Kids, and each one of them feels determined to do all they can to end child abuse in Polk County. Mary felt surrounded by support, and she hopes someday every child and every adult survivor will feel safe and receive support. “Through helping others, I heal the child within me,” Mary said. “The more people we educate about childhood sexual abuse, the more we stretch to reach the children who need for this horror to stop happening to them.”
Mary’s organization focuses on prevention training, peer support, and education. Her group, with a website at www.beavoice4kids.vpweb.org, has trained more than 150 community members as Darkness to Light Stewards of Children. She would like to have a family resource center in Polk County and a children’s advocacy center with complete forensic interviewing and medical services.
“When I look into the eyes of my children, and my grandchildren, with their purity and innocence, it gives me strength,” Mary said. “I want to protect them. All of our children need these resources.”
Mary has put away her collection of more than 200 clown dolls now. She used to perform as Bobo the Clown, but she’s stopped painting on that smile, too. She takes long walks, and often takes her camera with her. She also keeps a blog at www.writeblessings.blogspot.com.
“Writing has been therapeutic, unleashing memories that needed to be examined,” Mary said. “I like healing. I like to take photos that create smiles for others. I finally have found my true smile again, through healing myself and helping other people.”
Kiesa Kay writes plays and poetry from her perch in the Black Mountains. She also leads writing workshops on memoir and the healing art of writing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.