A Refuge for Abused Children

`Bridge' camp aims to nurture, heal, and help break the cycle of abuse. KIDS COPE

FROM the age of 10 until she was 14, Sandy Meyer says she was abused emotionally, physically, sexually by both parents. At times, she says, she was regularly tortured. When she escaped with her story to the local policeman, he took her back home. Her father, after all, was the church treasurer in this middle-class suburban neighborhood. ``There was little I didn't know about physical and emotional abuse until, when I got older, I was continually amazed that I was still alive,'' she recalls. In high school, she was so afraid of being found out, labeled, that she hid in ``super normalcy'': star student, class president, popular date.

``But I was so embarrassed by the things that happened to me that I believed, somewhere deep inside, I was responsible for it - that people would hold it against me if they knew - and think I was dirty because I felt I was dirty.'' She became pregnant by her father and gave birth to the child, who since died.

Later, married with children, she began to feel an almost intolerable physical pressure building from within. Her hands shook, her voice quavered. She felt if she did not deal with this incredible pressure, she would soon die.

``But outside, I just kept the fa,cade going. None of my closest friends even knew this about me,'' she says. Trying to logically ``figure out'' what happened, what to do, did not work. Trying to live with her anguish did not work.

Over the next few years, Dr. Meyer searched wholeheartedly for peace. Thinking for herself, drawing on her training at a Lutheran divinity school, searching Western and nontraditional philosophies - but most of all just ``listening, trusting God'' - Ms. Meyer overcame the negative image of herself she had carried since childhood.

``I finally realized I was not the things that had happened to me,'' she says, ``that I am no longer entwined with my experience as my identity.'' With her newfound mental liberation came a freedom from migraine headaches. Quavering voice and shaky hands became calm. Stepping out of the straitjacket of her past was so freeing that she wanted to share her experience with others.

``I very much wanted to able to establish a facility and a program that could ... link up with others to spread the practical application of the idea that love is greater than fear.''

Sandy Meyer's story is important because it shows how one individual overcame what is known in social-service lexicon as ``the cycle'': the tendency for the children of abusive parents to pass that abuse on - sometimes consciously, many times unconsciously - to their own children. More important, Ms. Meyer has founded a national program to deal with abused, neglected, and traumatized children.

The success of a small counseling service she began in Denver in 1979 led her to found A Bridge for The Children in 1985 using only her own money. Two years later, with the help of a national network of supporters built by frequent speech and seminar tours, ``Bridge'' has expanded to a 446-acre farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Intended as a place of peace and tranquility for children as they recover their personal dignity, the secular camp accepts referral youngsters aged 10-14 from foster homes, state shelters, and orphanages nationwide.

There is no camp fee. In addition to such traditional camping activities as fishing, swimming, sports, arts and crafts, and horseback riding, all campers are offered daily counseling workshops.

Sitting cross-legged on pillows in the dining room of the main house, many children share for the first time the abusive experiences which lead to their removal from homes, parents, and families.

``We teach the children how to change the conclusions they drew about themselves because of what happened to them,'' says Meyer. ``We do not change what happened to them.

``The only way they are going to get well, the only way they are going to take charge of their lives,'' she says, ``is to learn that they have the ability to do so. We give them the tools to do so.''

In addition to a nurturing atmosphere that includes caring for both animals and farm, the ``tools'' offered are showing children how to become care-givers instead of abuse repeaters. In the junior counselor program, experienced campers support novices, act as role models, encourage communication, and share activities. A senior counseling program further develops leadership.

There are also several programs of remedial tutoring, to help children make up for time lost in schools while shuffling through constant re-location.

What makes the camp unique is its commitment to continuity - providing therapy, supervision, and educational and legal support to children for as long as they need it, usually until age 18. Children attend three or four sessions each year, and receive weekly, even daily follow-up in the interim through phone calls, letters, and occasional visits to the farm.

Nationwide, state and federal social-service programs aim to break the cycle of child abuse, says Bridge vice-president Diana Wiley, ``but their bureaucracy won't support their goal.'' She produces statistics that show most foster care children are moved an average of once or twice a year. Thirty percent of those leaving the camp every year, she says, are moved again within three months.

The US social service system is overwhelmed, Ms. Wilely adds. It is trying to deal with more than 2.2 million cases of child abuse (according to the American Humane Association). That is an increase of over 200 percent in the last 10 years. Thousands more cases probably go unreported, Wiley adds.

A Bridge for the Children is still in the early stages of gathering data to support the idea that it can help break the cycle of child abuse.

[``Bridge''] is ``a sanctuary for abused and neglected children and youth,'' says Fred Taylor, executive director of a foster care consortium in Washington, D.C. ``From their stays [there] comes a healing that enables the campers to return to other communities with new strengths and values.''

``You are to be commended for your resourcefulness,'' wrote Dr. A. Pinit, acting director of the Kennedy Institute, a diagnostic and evaluation center. ``The child that was referred to your camp ... appears to have adjusted exceptionally well to the camp setting, the other children, and the adult staff members in only three weeks. She seems to continue to feel a sense of warmth, gentleness, caring, and peace whenever she speaks of [you].''

Always in search of private and corporate donations for her nonprofit enterprise (a year's budget is $281,000), Meyer is now moving to establish 10 more camps outside other metropolitan areas. A PhD in human behavior, Meyer wants to train other professionals to carry on her techniques.

``This problem is much bigger than anyone thinks it is because of those like me who think they have nowhere to turn to. They say nothing,'' says Meyer.

The answer is awareness, she says, both of the problem and of the testimony to the fact that healing is possible.

``Abused children believe that if they had any worth, people would have treated them with value and dignity,'' says Meyer. ``Instead, they feel like trash, so they act like trash. Then they treat each other like trash and the cycle gets repeated.

``We teach them `you are only a victim if you give someone else your mind,''' she says.

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