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Prepared to help

SUNDAY, APRIL 29, 2007

When Rebecca McKillip was a 3-year-old trying to pour her own cereal in a maggot-infested kitchen, no one was there.

When she was an 8-year-old watching her stepfather beat and rape her mother, no one helped.

And when she was beaten herself at age 12, molested by her mother’s boyfriend at age 13, and raped by a childhood friend at age 15, she was alone.

So now, at age 28, the first-time volunteer for Spokane County’s CASA program knows exactly why it’s important to stand up for a child in court:

Because no one stood up for her.

“I think I can have empathy for those in that situation,” said McKillip, who is about to graduate with a degree in social work from Eastern Washington University.

“Someone who hasn’t lived it won’t have the empathy that I’ve had.”

McKillip is among hundreds of Inland Northwest residents who’ve agreed to invest time, attention and, sometimes, money, to prevent and heal child abuse in their community.

For her, volunteering for the Court Appointed Special Advocates program is a way to channel the pain of her past into positive action for herself – and others.

“It’s a lot to overcome and I didn’t want to be a victim any longer,” said McKillip, who was the only girl in a family of five children, including a severely disabled brother. She is now the mother of a 3-year-old son, Zander.

“What happened to me is just what happened to me; it’s not who I am,” she added. “It’s what you’re doing now that’s important.”

McKillip is not alone.

As The Spokesman-Review’s monthlong examination of abuse and neglect comes to a close Monday, social service agencies across the region are bracing for an influx of volunteers moved to action by awareness.

More than 1,700 people have signed a pledge agreeing to do one thing in the next year on behalf of a child. More than 100 people have offered to volunteer time to agencies ranging from the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery and the Boys and Girls Club to CASA.

“I was just struck by the outpouring of love and engagement and interest people have with this topic,” said Sally Pritchard, community impact manager for United Way of Spokane County.

True, more than a quarter of the promises to volunteer came from folks with a long history of agency engagement. Tom Sahlberg, of Spokane, for instance, has donated time to the crisis nursery for more than a decade, and he has no plans to stop.

Dozens of individuals and families said they’d long wanted to help, but didn’t know how. They said they were outraged by stories of loss and harm, particularly the March 10 death of 4-year-old Summer Phelps of Spokane.

“I have a 7-year-old daughter myself,” said Dana Divine, a 41-year-old sales manager for Spokane’s Davenport Hotel. “Reading about that little girl, Summer, was just so completely disturbing. I was just motivated to try to help. Some of these kids are just falling through the cracks.”

Divine was among several people who mentioned the Vanessa Behan nursery as an agency to help. In the first two weeks of April, perhaps 15 people had volunteered their time and energy – and more were expected, said Bonita Roach, volunteer program assistant.

They’ll be added to the 100 to 125 volunteers who help staff and sustain the nursery that last year served more than 3,000 children. The nursery’s annual budget of $1.2 million is generated entirely by donations; no state or federal grants are sought or accepted, Roach said.

“We determine who can use the nursery and why and when,” she said.

Many of the would-be volunteers have visions of rocking babies, and there is some of that to be done, Roach said. But those who agree to background checks and training and a minimum commitment of 45 hours a year must be flexible, too.

“We don’t always have babies,” Roach said. “It’s playing with the older children; it’s reading. There’s always a need throughout the day for people to help in a variety of ways.”

That’s fine with DeDe Gitlin, a 70-year-old former public health nurse who recently moved to Spokane. She staffed a crisis nursery in New York in the 1970s and then worked as a psychiatric and family health nurse in Montana, Alaska and Arizona.

Retired now and suffering early symptoms of multiple sclerosis, she said she’s interested in continuing a lifetime of care.

“You know, it’s a purpose. And I think that’s really important,” Gitlin said. “It’s something I know I could be effective in, not in some flamboyant way, just in holding babies and cooing to them. I’m a holder, I’m a rocker. With older children, I’m actually pretty silly.”

Like Gitlin, Sandra Boynton, of Rathdrum, Idaho, was inspired by the community focus on child abuse. She’d like to direct her energies toward any of the child-abuse prevention agencies in North Idaho.

“I just turned 65, I’ve been reading about this for years and being dismayed that more isn’t being done,” Boynton said. “I certainly can spare some time.”

Although many of those who stepped forward were first-time volunteers, veterans were moved to help as well. The Fitzthum family, of Spokane, tries to volunteer for a different cause at least once a month, said Sheri Fitzthum, 46, who works in the accounting office at Gonzaga University.

The crew includes her husband, Doug Fitzthum, 48, a service manager for Airstream Inc. of Spokane, and her son, Jake Wykes, 16, a student at West Valley High School.

So far, the family has helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity and serve meals for Second Harvest, of Spokane. Volunteering for an agency that intervenes with child abuse would be new, Sheri Fitzthum said.

“It’s kind of an area I’ve always wanted to get into, but not knowing how or whether I would be good enough,” she said.

Even people who’ve experienced heartache and hardship through volunteering were moved to try again. Catherine and David Moyer, of Spokane, agreed several years ago to let a 17-year-old girl and her new baby move in with them when the child suffered bacterial meningitis. The girl’s parents had deserted her, so the Moyers stepped up to help.

They grew attached to Kaylie, who’s now 8, and, later, her brother, Colin, now 3. But Catherine Moyer, a 57-year-old mother of three grown daughters, had to stand back and watch when the children’s mother married an abusive man.

“I said, ‘Honey, you need to get out of that situation,’ ” Moyer recalled.

The woman didn’t.

“I broke down in tears at the end,” Moyer said. “If you can make it through that first time of detaching yourself, you could do it again and again after that. The next time, you’re doing it for a different reason.”

As an employee of a bank that provides employees with 16 hours a year of paid time for community service projects, Catherine Moyer was looking for a new opportunity.

“I saw that in the paper and I said, ‘That’s it!’ “

Names of potential volunteers will be compiled in a database and distributed to nonprofit agencies that need help, said Janice Marich, interim director for United Way of Spokane County. Organizers hope to send letters soon thanking those who’ve agreed to help, said Pritchard.

“It’s important to get back to them on ways that they can act on that energy,” she said.

At least one would-be volunteer will have to find a different way to help, however. District Court Judge Debra Hayes was so moved by stories of abuse and neglect, she agreed to donate time at the Vanessa Behan nursery.

“I’d like to volunteer an afternoon a month to help care for the children,” Hayes said earlier this month.

But on the advice of a judicial ethics adviser, Hayes withdrew her application. The chance that she might encounter in court the parent of a child she’d cared for posed a distinct conflict of interest, the adviser said.

“It would be more prudent of me not to have this kind of hands-on contact,” Hayes said. “I’ll have to do my giving in a more nonpersonal way.”

For Rebecca McKillip, it’s not possible to intervene in a nonpersonal way. Years of abuse and neglect left their mark on the young woman with long dark hair and serious eyes.

Slowly and with great effort, she has untangled the emotional snarls that led her to dance in strip clubs and seek out dangerous situations and abusive relationships. She’s created a safe environment for her son, one in which he’s never known even the smack of a hand on a covered bottom.

“I’ve never spanked my child,” McKillip said. “You warn first, react second.”

McKillip has fostered a fragile new relationship with her mother, Debbie Weddle, who acknowledges her daughter’s past abuse.

“She had to witness things no child should have to see,” said Weddle, 45, of Salem, Ore.

At the same time, Weddle said she wishes McKillip would put the abuse more firmly behind her.

“That’s the only thing I ever worry about. She places too much emphasis on how bad it was,” Weddle said. “I’ve told her it happens to all of us. You’re not the only one.”

But McKillip said she knows that lesson all too well.

“I’m aware of it daily,” she said. “Every day I come home thinking, ‘What child is being beaten today? What child is being raped today? What mom is being raped today?’ ”

And then, like so many in this community, she thinks: What can I do to help?


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