If I had reflected on my legacy in my early 50s, I probably would have expressed something about my daughters and grandchildren. However, at age 57, I suffered a major heart attack that changed my life. It caused many complications, including the rapid advancement of my muscular dystrophy, first diagnosed in my late 20s. Becoming wheelchair-bound, I was forced to look at life from a new perspective. My retirement expectations vanished as I struggled to transform my extremely active life to one of dependency. Depression fought for a hold on my psyche.
During my cardiac rehabilitation, the therapist recognized my dilemma and stressed that I get involved in some activity that would hold my interest for a long period. The very next day, opportunity knocked when a neighbor asked me to help start a local Kiwanis Club. With my therapist’s advice still echoing, I accepted the challenge. We chartered a new club, and it has helped many children in our area.
At a club meeting, a representative from the District Attorney General’s office spoke about establishing a Child Advocacy Center that would intervene in child abuse situations in our four-county area.
I attended a series of workshops and, after the third meeting, was asked to preside over its board of directors. That’s when my legacy dramatically changed.
Long hours of hard work by a core of diligent and loyal board members filled the next several years. In April 2002 we opened the doors to our center, named Kids First, in a rented space with just a director and volunteers. We now have our own building, seven qualified staff members and more than 60 volunteers. We have helped more than 1,500 sexually or severely physically abused children from the ages of 3 to 17. Our services include forensic medical examinations and interviewing, therapy for children and their caregivers, guidance through the legal process, and community education.
Although my daughters and grandchildren remain a top priority, my legacy will be the thousands of kids through the coming years who, because of the work of Kids First and my role in its development, will break the insidious cycle of child abuse and live wholesome and happy lives.
The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Ed Conte is a reader from Loudon, Tenn., and is working on his second novel.