Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Conference opens the door on talking about childhood sexual abuse


STILLWATER — It can be hard to talk about childhood sexual abuse, but when this topic is broached in earnest, it can lead to healing and real community change.

That's the perspective of EmpowerSurvivors, a Stillwater nonprofit that will hold a conference Nov. 11 to tackle the topic head-on in an attempt to remove the stigma and promote healing for survivors of childhood sexual assault.

The conference, which is entitled “Giving Voice: EmpowerSurvivors 2017” will take place Saturday, Nov. 11 at the Grand Banquet Hall in downtown Stillwater.

The nonprofit's mission is to provide resources and support for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse by reducing isolation, mitigating feelings of shame, rebuilding trust and providing empowerment through peer support groups.

“I'm just really excited it's something that can bring everybody together,” said EmpowerSurvivors founder Elizabeth Sullivan. “It doesn't have to be something that's horrible to discuss. We can discuss it in ways that we can do something about it as a society. Once you know just how serious a problem this is, I really believe people would want to do more for our kids.”

Sullivan began the organization in 2014 when she realized how important it is for survivors of childhood sexual assault to have a support system. As a survivor herself, Sullivan began educating herself about the psychological trauma and other long-suppressed effects that adult survivors endure. She said it's common for adults to reach middle age before the negative effects of psychological damage even begin to show. This was the case for Sullivan, who began experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as flashbacks and intrusive thoughts in her 40s. She began her own healing journey, but in the process discovered how prevalent childhood sexual abuse really was. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, one in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of sexual abuse.

“And most survivors stay quiet,” she said. “So that's why I named this conference Giving Voice. In order to find healing, to have prevention and intervention, you have to give voice to the epidemic.”

This year's conference features three notable speakers. Matthew Sandusky will return for the second year in a row: “Same guy, different subject,” Sullivan said. Matthew is the adopted son of Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was sentenced for sexual abuse of underage students in 2012.

Jane Straub of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center will also speak about resiliency in the wake of adverse childhood experiences.

Finally, Tara Walker Lyons of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana will tell her story of abuse, and Tara's Law, legislation she pushed through that requires K-12 and adult education on childhood sexual abuse prevention.

The event isn't just for survivors of abuse—Sullivan encourages everyone in the community to get involved in the conversation.

“Whether we know it or not, everyone we know does know a survivor or a child that is being sexually abused,” Sullivan said. “Until we start to recognize that, our kids are at risk. There are bullying projects in schools, but far more kids are being sexually abused, and we're not talking about it. Most of those will have (multiple) abusers, and the majority never say a thing, and they end up in prisons, on welfare and they will have medical issues. It really has an effect not only on survivors but generations that come after that, and also on the community. I really want to involve the community into this conversation.”

Sullivan hopes the conference will offer something unique to therapists and counselors who might work to help survivors but don't understand their trauma because they have not experienced it firsthand.

In addition to addressing challenges and successes, the conference will include many vendors from the community, such as Canvas Health, counseling care services, and holistic health clinics that offer yoga and acupuncture.

General admission to the conference is $55 plus tax. Learn more about EmpowerSurvivors or register for the conference at

EmpowerSurvivors also recently established a permanent office in downtown Stillwater at 1940 Greeley St. S., Suite 210.

“That's exciting because now we have better space for survivors to come for our meeting, and we can offer classes,” Sullivan said. An open house of the office location will take place 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28.

Jackie Bussjaeger is the editor of the Forest Lake and St. Croix Valley Lowdown, and can be reached at 651-407-1229 or

Ticket and Conference info. for this year’s Giving Voice- EmpowerSurvivors 2017

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