The RAACE is on to protect hurt children

Organization stages motorcycle ride as part of campaign against sexual abuse

August 10, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Statistics are more than just numbers to Kenneth Smith.

Five years ago, he attended a dinner sponsored by an NFL group to raise money for a residential center for traumatized children.

During the dinner, Smith said he learned that one in three girls, and one in seven boys, is sexually abused by age 18.

"When I heard the statistics, I thought with those statistics, children aren't safe," said Smith, 51, of Bel Air, who has three grown children. "I felt that more needed to be done to bring the statistics out in the open."

The statistics touched Smith, and he started holding picnics and helping with projects at the center. In 2004, he started a nonprofit organization called the RAACE (Race Against Abuse of Children Everywhere) Foundation to help raise awareness of the child sexual abuse epidemic.

Recently the group kicked off a $2 million campaign to raise money for public awareness of child sexual abuse.

Next Sunday, the foundation is sponsoring the Rally for RAACE, a charity motorcycle ride and family fun day event, to raise money for child sexual abuse awareness.

The Rally for RAACE, which begins at Jones Junction, is a police-escorted 46-mile charity motorcycle ride through rural Harford County. It ends at the new Chesapeake Harley-Davidson Dealership in Darlington.

Smith's race against child sexual abuse began well before the rally, he said. It started several years ago when Smith and employees of his Forest Hill-based business, Construction Resources United, attended a picnic at St. Vincent's. The facility is a residential treatment center for traumatized children ages 3 to 13 who have serious behavioral, psychiatric or emotional problems that often stem from being abused or neglected.

He and his employees learned the effects sexual abuse can have on children.

During the visit, they were shown artwork done by a boy and his brother who were sexually abused by a camp counselor, who was also a family friend. One boy painted a picture to show his pain, while the other wrote poetry. Later the boy's father and then both youngsters committed suicide.

Their story and art were used to start Illuminations, a program initiated to show the trauma of child sexual abuse.

Smith was so touched by the story that he asked what he could do to help enlighten people about child sexual abuse. Something needed to be done to stop the epidemic, he said.

"I felt that we needed to get people to look at what happens once children are manipulated and sexually abused," Smith said.

For starters, Smith and his employees reached out to the children with an annual picnic. They also built a shed and a pavilion for the center, which was constructed in 1856 as an orphanage.

However, Smith wanted to go beyond that, said Ellen Torres, director of development at St. Vincent's.

"Raising awareness is the only way to stop sexual abuse," said Torres, who has worked at St. Vincent's for 15 years. "And the problem is that most people want to ignore the topic. But until our society recognizes child sexual abuse as a public health crisis, we will never be able to stop it."

People have misconceptions about child sexual abuse, such as who the perpetrators are, Torres said.

"People have this impression that some man on the corner in a trench coat is going to grab their child and molest them," she said. "But 95 percent of all sexually abused children are abused by someone the family knows and cares about."

The solution is to educate parents about child sexual abuse, and teach them how to tell their children what is appropriate behavior and what is not, Smith said.

"Parents need to be told to talk to their children at a very early age about such things as what is good touch and bad touch," Smith said. "They need to tell their children that they need to tell if anything happens to them that is not appropriate. The biggest challenge is to get parents to understand the sexual abuse problem."

To spread the word, Smith said he realized that he needed to reach large groups of people, and that he needed to find a public venue that would draw children and their parents. He approached a brother and a nephew with the idea of driving a car with the RAACE logo and colors - purple and yellow - to represent the RAACE Foundation, he said.

They agreed, and Team RAACE was started. Since then, the foundation has reached hundreds of thousands of people at racing events, Smith said.

The racers were an ideal fit for the foundation, said Vickie Brooks, 47, of Bel Air. People see race car drivers as heroes, and they follow their heroes.

"The racing events gave us a venue to get the word out, without scaring or embarrassing people," said Brooks, a member of the foundation. "It was a way to get to the public without upsetting people."

Although a majority of the foundation's outreach is done at car racing events, members plan to branch out into other venues, including the local PTA and other parent groups, Smith said.

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