Life Crisis Center: Where pain is replaced with hope, healing

Farah VanGendern

Farah VanGenderen of the Life Crisis Center.

“Just so you know, I’ve been through these things and it is more than OK to tell.”

These words were penciled on a 3-by-5 card in the childish scrawl of an 8-year-old. They’re directed to other children who come to the Life Crisis Center here in Salisbury.

When you know the story behind them, you are likely to have two reactions: first a feeling of heartbreak, and later, a counterbalancing feeling of pride and inspiration.

You see, the story behind those words simultaneously represents some of the nastiest and most beautiful things that go on in our area. The 8-year-old, whom we’ll call Teresa (not her real name) came to the attention of Life Crisis because of sexual abuse.

To disguise her identity, some of the details you’re about to read are a composite of several cases. Still, at heart the details do represent the reality of the problem Teresa and her family experienced.

For Teresa, the symptoms that eventually led to her coming to the attention of Life Crisis included: terror of going to school, withdrawal from her friends and family, stomach aches, headaches, and, as her distraught parents noticed, an overwhelming feeling of being “broken.”

And yet initially, her parents couldn’t imagine what the real cause was.

After all, they had carefully taught Teresa about good touching and bad touching. They believed they had a close and loving relationship with their daughter, one in which she could tell them anything.

Her parents were mystified and guilt-ridden over the fact that Teresa didn’t tell them. What she didn’t tell them was about how her uncle would have her sit on his lap. Then he’d fondle her, and touch her private areas.

Why didn’t she tell?

Her therapist at Life Crisis, Farah VanGenderen understands why Teresa didn’t talk.

“When kids are young, they have only a limited knowledge of the world,” VanGenderen said. “They know that it doesn’t feel right, but sometimes they feel that somehow they’re responsible. Or they feel that if they tell, they’ll get in trouble. Most of all, they’re scared.”

When Teresa came to VanGenderen for her symptoms of abuse, the child was slow in talking about it. It took several sessions before a real clue occurred.

It finally happened when Teresa was looking at one of the dolls in VanGenderen’s office.

VanGenderen noticed that the way Teresa was examining the doll seemed different from the way an average child would look at a doll.

 “What are you looking for?” VanGenderen gently asked.

Softly, hesitantly, Teresa answered, “I want to see if it’s broken. Like me.”

“Why would you think that?” VanGenderen asked.

“Well, when my parents first found out about it, they sent me to a doctor and he examined me down there, and that means I am broken.”

VanGenderen had a wonderful way of assuring Teresa that she wasn’t “broken.” She and Teresa met with the pediatrician who had examined Teresa, and the doctor promised Teresa that she wasn’t broken, and that actually she was fine.

That was part of her healing, but there was much, much more. Through hours of talk, VanGenderen was able to reframe the experience for Teresa. It wasn’t her fault, and no matter how unpleasant it was, it was just one page in the whole book of her life.

In the end, with counseling for both Teresa and her parents, the entire family came to shed much of the guilt, shame and devastation that came with child sexual abuse.

What happened to Teresa will always be with her and her family, but it’s just one page in a book, it’s no longer the entire book.

VanGenderen adores her job because she gets to see the healing that Life Crisis can offer. She knows about the initial devastation to the child and to the child’s family, but she also gets to be a part of the healing, and eventually, she gets to see the whole family smiling, healthy, happy and safe.

“I get to see the growth and the healing,” she says, adding, “I’m so grateful that I’m along for the ride and I get to see these miracles.”

Salisbury author Mitzi Perdue writes about local United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore funded agencies for Salisbury Independent.


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