“Crimes against children occur across every socio-economic, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, and racial demographic in this country. I ask the community to demand that schools provide prevention education for their children. I ask society to recognize that if we empower children to recognize and stop inappropriate behaviors than we will not have another #MeToo movement. As a society we tend to take the easy route and focus on the few perpetrators we’ve caught but we really need to be addressing the vulnerability that allows them to have so many victims. There is currently no government funding for child abuse prevention for children and I ask politicians to fund prevention education for every child.”
I had the pleasure to interview Erin Runnion. Erin is the Founding Director of The Joyful Child Foundation — In Memory of Samantha Runnion, (TJCF) a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing crimes against children through programs that educate, empower, and unite families and communities.
As Co-Founder of The Joyful Child Foundation as well as The Surviving Parents Coalition (SPC), and a member of the Board of Directors for the National Associ- ation to PROTECT Children, Erin has become a highly respected spokesperson, spreading her message in frequent media appearances, keynote addresses, and presentations for both government and private organizations. She has re- ceived numerous awards including The National Center for Missing and Exploit- ed Children’s Hope Award; A Certificate of Valor from The U.S. Department of Justice; People Magazine’s Heroes Among Us Award; and Redbook Magazine’s Mothers and Shakers honor.
In an effort to reach every child with safety education, Erin developed a train- the-trainers Ambassador program for adult education for child protection, and the BRAVE Programs with a comprehensive Kindergarten — 12th grade supple- mental physical education and health curriculum with ten personal safety and life-skills lessons as well as 90-minute workshops for community-based agencies. Erin delivers an inspiring message of hope and courage that motivates audienc- es to be a part of the solution to stop crimes against children.
Samantha was kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2002. Erin is dedicated to ensuring Samantha’s tragic death continue to be a catalyst to engage adults in our collective responsibility in protecting our nation’s children. Samantha’s motto was, “Be Brave.”
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
In July, 2002, my daughter, Samantha Runnion, was playing with a friend about 30 yards from our front door when a man pulled up in his car, got out, and asked the girls if they would help him find his lost puppy. He rushed at Samantha and picked her up. She kicked, screamed, and finally, yelled to her friend to go tell her Grandma as he threw her into the backseat. Her lifeless little body was found by a hiker on a trail nearly 60 miles away the next afternoon. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department led a multi-agency investigation drawing on local, state, and federal resources. The perpetrator was arrested four days later. After three years, he was convicted on all counts by a jury and sentenced to death. In the meantime, with the support of my family, friends, and thousands of generous contributions of sympathy, I started The Joyful Child Foundation to honor Samantha by developing and supporting programs that protect and cultivate children’s joy and safety. We have been providing prevention education to children and parents throughout southern California for over fifteen years.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
The Joyful Child launched our BRAVE Initiative in September 2013 with the goal to reach every child and family with positive safety education. The BRAVE Initiative includes a comprehensive BRAVE Curriculum for grades K-6 with BRAVE Teacher Training and a community-partner model that allows us to offer BRAVE Workshops for children, teens, and parents living in high-risk circumstances such as emergency shelters. Our latest project is a new multi-media model with short BRAVE videos for every week of the year. We impact 10,000 students a year because of individual donations and most of our revenue comes from our annual gala, The Joyful Feast, to be held on September 29th at the Fashion Island Hotel in Newport Beach.
So how exactly does your organization help people?
The Joyful Child’s BRAVE Programs cultivate a child’s instinctual response to recognize, avoid, and if necessary, physically defend themselves against violence of all kinds. We also train volunteers to provide BRAVE Parent Presentations that empower parents with tips and tools for communicating with their children effectively about safety, and how to recognize and respond to potentially predatory grooming or other problematic behaviors that put children at risk of victimization.
Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?
A fourth-grade girl, whose school implemented BRAVE lessons throughout the year, used her skills to get away from a person in a van that was trying to get her inside as she walked home from school. She ran back to the school office and called 9–1–1. Preventing that child from suffering was worth a lifetime of effort.
This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?
When I started to learn about the prevalence and scope of crimes against children I quickly understood that what happened to Samantha is on the most extreme end of the spectrum. According to the US Dept of Justice, children are victims of violence more than any other population group. I read study after study that made me realize that there is a pandemic of child abuse in this country and The Joyful Child is one of the only organizations that believes children deserve to be taught realistic skills to prevent and stop violence against them. I’m driven by the stories of far too many child victims as much as I am by the confident smiles and yells of BRAVE students. Children deserve to know that no one has the right to hurt them.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Crimes against children occur across every socio-economic, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, and racial demographic in this country. I ask the community to demand that schools provide prevention education for their children. I ask society to recognize that if we empower children to recognize and stop inappropriate behaviors than we will not have another #MeToo movement. As a society we tend to take the easy route and focus on the few perpetrators we’ve caught but we really need to be addressing the vulnerability that allows them to have so many victims. There is currently no government funding for child abuse prevention for children and I ask politicians to fund prevention education for every child.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are so many wonderful people who have helped me and The Joyful Child reach this sixteenth anniversary. My mother and my husband supported me every single day and without my family I cannot fathom how I could have continued this work. They keep me balanced, laughing, and loving the little moments that make life worth living.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
This one is really hard! I feel like I was told all kinds of things that I didn’t want to believe but turned out to be true. These are quotes I should have listened to from people who were trying to help us or at least to give me advice in the first year after Samantha’s death:
1) “America has amnesia and people will forget and stop sending checks after the first year or two.” We waited to fundraise until after the murder trial three years later.
2) “The government will not fund prevention.” Sad, but true.
3) “There is no stability for a non-profit organization no matter how big they get; grant writing and fundraising is never-ending.” I did not realize that even large non-profits have to lay people off when their grant cycle ends if they don’t find another source to fund the position. I hate asking people for money but our programs are needed and effective and the organization needs to grow exponentially to reach every child.
4) “Your real job is to meet people, thank them, and then send them a thank you card.” I am so bad at sending thank you cards! Keeping in touch with everyone is the hardest part of my job and my life.
5) When it comes to legislative advocacy, “Read the drafts carefully because there is a big difference between “may” and “shall.” If you look at most legislation about child abuse prevention the language is “may” instead of “shall” because politicians get to say they passed the bill and they get the photo opportunity even if the law has neither a mandate nor funding.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. 🙂
Melinda and Bill Gates because I believe in their approach to empowering individuals to survive and thrive wherever they live. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) asserts that child abuse is the most detrimental health problem in this country because studies have shown significant long-term health and financial consequences of childhood trauma. Child abuse statistics are as bad or worse in most places around the world. Effective safety empowerment education can help prevent violence and victimization while cultivating resiliency, confidence, self-advocacy, and life-skills.
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Originally published at medium.com