Mr. Big, Wallpaper and Smiles

Jennie Helderman broke the glass ceiling at age ten by becoming the first girl page in the Alabama State Legislature. That surge of girl power wouldn’t be the last time she saw a need to put women’s issues at the forefront. Years later, after she helped set up a crisis-call center in an old house, a cry for help at the other end of the phone line resounded in her head. That call was the catalyst; eventually, the empty bedrooms upstairs served as the community’s first shelter for victims of domestic abuse.

From there, Helderman began work with women’s issues and leadership, community development, public relations and communications, beginning in Gadsden, Alabama, and reaching to national levels. She has championed women’s and children’s issues and worked with child abuse victims. From 2000 until her term expired in 2006, she presided over the six-member board of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which serves 520,000 clients each month and oversees all family abuse issues in the state.

A 2007 Pushcart Prize nominee, Helderman coauthored two nonfiction books, Christmas Trivia and Hanukkah Trivia and writes profiles for magazines. Previously she chaired the editorial board of the 120,000 circulation alumnae magazine of Kappa Kappa Gamma, The Key.

Her latest book is As the Sycamore Grows.

Helderman is married to a retired newspaper publisher; is the mother of two and grandmother of three; and has recently moved from Alabama to Atlanta. Her website address is www.jenniehelderman.com.

 Mr. Big, Wallpaper and Smiles

By Jennie Helderman

I answered the buzzer at the children’s center one day, unbolted the door, and was nearly run over by a red-headed four-year-old. He brushed past me in search of Mr. Big, who was napping in the next room. I followed. The little boy’s face broke into a smile as he pounced on Mr. Big.

Have you ever seen a cat with the disposition of a rag doll? Mr. Big was a gray tabby that took whatever the children dished out and answered with a purr as loud as a lawnmower. This time he curled into the child’s arms.

I was wallpaper. The children seldom noticed me when I was on the premises, and that was how it was supposed to be. Mine was a background role. Abused children needed to learn to trust again and each child’s counselor was always present for him. As was Mr. Big. I was not. My job was board chairman—pay the bills, hire good people and let the healing begin.

We had chosen an old house for the center, a homey place, nothing institutional about it. Later we bought the house next door and joined the two. At first the purpose was to spare children the trauma of going into a courtroom or other unfamiliar setting after they had already suffered some bad experience. Later we expanded into doing forensic examinations and training people in prevention, intervention and care-giving.

One room appeared to be a playroom, and it was. While a child played with toys or Mr. Big, a counselor would ask questions the court needed to hear. Attorneys and parents observed from behind a one-way glass in an adjacent room. Other rooms were used for therapy sessions, supervised visits, and training workers in prevention and intervention.

Our center was part of the National Children’s Advocacy Centers which provide services to 250,000 child abuse victims per year. These centers number 600 now in the United States and 20 other countries.

While I worked with the center in my small town, I also was part of a larger statewide organization, Voices for Alabama’s Children. Among other things, Voices monitored the legislature. We were able to see some good laws passed, such as seat belts on school buses and child death review. Now if a child dies, someone must investigate. This has led to some “accidents” being exposed as death from abuse.

I saw more numbers than I did children, but just the numbers would get me riled up: children burned with cigarettes, or scalded by hot bath water as punishment for their sins, or sexually abused by a family member. Occasionally I matched faces to the numbers. Not names, just faces.

The twelve-year-old pregnant by her step-brother was easy to identify. Confused and embarrassed, her family had tried to hide both children away but the pregnancy eventually told itself.

Another was a single mother who struggled to put food on her table. She had been lured into a romantic relationship with a wonderful man. He plied her and her children with gifts, gave them a place to live and paid all the bills—in order to gain access to her young children. Pedophiles use that ploy, so I learned.

When the woman found out, she was horrified, guilt-ridden and then homeless. We’d helped her find a safe place to live. Her children’s testimony had put one pedophile behind bars. The children were resilient. They would recover. Already the red-headed four-year-old could smile again as he played with Mr. Big.

His smile was my reward.

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