By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
On a wall at the SOAR ministries house in New Albany, a painting of a tree hangs. Instead of bright green leaves blooming from its branches, painful words cover its bare limbs as its roots run deep into the soil.
Survivors during a retreat wrote these sayings in an attempt to deal with the enduring legacy of their childhood sexual abuse. Like the tree, the roots of many of their problems began with the molestation. Shame, anger and loneliness blossomed as its fruits.
For the past 13 years, survivors such as these have helped many uproot the remnants of this abuse. Naming the group Survivors of Abuse Restored, or SOAR, the organization has made an impact in the lives of more than 400 women in Southern Indiana. On Friday, March 1, the nonprofit ministry will celebrate these victories at its Healing Hearts Banquet, its major fundraising event of the year.
“What the public and what people don’t understand is that childhood sexual abuse is the root of a lot of women’s issues,” said president of the board and local counselor Cathy Jo Summers. “There are a lot of things that are the result of childhood sexual abuse.”
Statistics show that one in every three females has experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18, the effects of which don’t end with childhood. As they age, these women have a greater likelihood of suffering from depression, antisocial behavior, anxiety and low self-esteem, not to mention other emotional and even some physical problems.
More than a decade ago, SOAR founder and abuse survivor Leslie Thomas was confronted with the fact that few resources were available for survivors in the area. Not many support groups existed that focused only on childhood sexual abuse. So she decided to found one.
After approaching Northside Christian Church about using its facilities to start a group, the leaders agreed and, as Thomas said, the rest is history.
“I had no place to go so I knew that others had no place to go,” she said. “All of us were at the point that [the abuse] was who we were. It’s not who we are. It’s what happened to us.”
Now SOAR has developed support groups in Harrison and Floyd counties and hopes to expand its services to more communities in the future. People interested can attend one of the bimonthly Thursday night meetings at their headquarters to see if it’s right for them. Once they join, members are asked only to purchase their own session workbook, but the organization does donate materials to those in need.
“We don’t want anybody to not come because they can’t buy the book,” Thomas said.
Although it is a Christian ministry, the organization welcomes women from every background. Summers said the group understands the spiritual and emotional difficulties associated with recovery. It’s not uncommon for survivors to blame God for allowing their abuse to occur. She added these feelings are perfectly natural, and the group encourages people to explore this anger.
“How do you reconcile a loving God who allows such suffering? That’s a personal journey that each of us take as Christians,” Summers said. “In fact, we should feel anger in a variety of ways, in a variety of places. And if they feel anger at God, it’s not unhealthy.
“That’s a part of the healing journey. But in the end, we do believe God is a loving God and it wasn’t his will for this to happen.”
Even with learning guides and experienced leaders, group sessions are no easy task. After living with the secret of the abuse for so long, the healing process doesn’t happen overnight. But Summers, also a survivor, said with time it does start to happen. As with all great journeys, one must take the first step.
“I’ve been on my recovery journey for over 20 years and I’ve come a long way. I have a whole lot of freedom and I’m helping a lot of people get free. But I know that there are times it still impacts me,” she said. “I don’t know if this side of heaven we get totally free. But we can get really free and have a wonderful life.”
Thomas also has experienced a profound change since therapy. She remembered a time when, because of the shame, she had a hard time looking people in the eyes when she spoke to them. In high school, she felt alone in the crowd, thinking no one else could understand her past. Finding others with the same tragic history has allowed Thomas not to let the abuse define her life anymore.
“When you cross that line, the abuse isn’t going to win anymore. It’s not going to control my life. I have a voice. I am who I am,” she said. “I always said recovery is a journey. Now I say life is a journey.”
SO YOU KNOW
• WHAT: SOAR Healing Hearts Banquet
• WHERE: First Assembly of God, 2778 Charlestown Road, New Albany
• WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 1
• TICKETS: $40; proceeds to benefit Survivors of Abuse Restored. Tickets may be purchased online at healingheartsbanquet.com
• For more information or to RSVP, contact Leslie at 812-786-5463 or visit soarministry.org