"I would never want anyone to go through what I went through, but what I've been able to do because of what I went through is put value to what happened to me."
A survivor of childhood sexual abuse with a long road to healing, Abuse Hurts CEO & Founder, Ellen Campbell translated her own recovery into hope for others during her tenure as Executive Director for The Starlight Children’s Foundation, where she served for 12 years. In 1993, she founded Abuse Hurts (Previously The Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness). Abuse Hurts provides support for thousands of people who have experienced abuse. Ellen was appointed to the Judicial Appointments of Judges for Ontario, where she served for 2 years. Ellen has received many awards for her work, but she would be the first one to say she receives them on behalf of the many volunteers that make it happen.
SWY: If you don’t mind sharing - What is your story with childhood/youth abuse and trauma?
EC: I was sexually abused when I was 9-years-old by someone that lived in my house, a boarder. He sexually abused my sister and me for roughly two years. We never talked about it with each other or with our parents, as no one talked about it back then. I was raped at 12 and stalked at 16, so my whole childhood development as a woman was very destroyed and it led me to lead a very unhealthy lifestyle. I was promiscuous as it came from my need to try and control men. I also ended up in the psych ward as I was going to kill myself because my life just went from bad to worse. This unhealthy lifestyle is something that unfortunately happens a lot of the time when sexual abuse happens at a young age and you don't process it and get help early. I didn't really get any therapy or counselling until I was in my 40’s.
SWY: In 1993, you founded “Abuse Hurts” - Can you tell us more about your foundation and what inspired you to start it?
EC: At the time, I was running the Starlight Children's Foundation that grants wishes to seriously ill children. I ended up buying a recovery bookstore and did my first conference for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I couldn’t believe how many people showed up for it and so I did a conference every year for three years for sexual abuse survivors. I realized it's an issue that is huge and it wasn't just me. So, for the next couple of years, I set up my agency. If I could help one person facilitate a workshop and bring in special speakers to just get the word out and help support; that's kind of how it started. It started in the basement of my house. I never expected it to grow and it was like that for a few years. About 21 years ago, a young man at the Maple Leaf Gardens which was a “Hockey shrine," came forward to say he had been sexually abused at the Gardens. As a result of this, over 100 other men came forward to say they were also sexually abused there. Ken Dryden, who was once a famous hockey player, contacted me, and we did a fundraiser with Shoppers Drug Mart and they presented me with a cheque for $200,000. This allowed me to get out of the basement of my house, to get an office, and to get a staff person because for the next couple of years, I was running both agencies. It was probably about 18 years ago that I left Starlight to run Abuse Hurts full-time.
SWY: Can you tell us about some of the resources that your foundation offers to those who have suffered from childhood abuse and trauma?
EC: About 16 years ago, I had a very well-known morning man here in Toronto, John Derringer, come on board to raise money for us, and he started the "John Derringer 13 Days of Christmas Fundraiser." Every year, we raise close to $200,000; it is our main fundraiser that we have been doing for over 16 years. So much of what we do is supporting frontline workers. For example, we run a makeover day once a month where we have about eight women come in to get their hair, makeup, and nails done. They can shop for free for slightly used clothing for themselves and for their families. All of our programs have developed because it all comes from a need in the community. I just saw a need in the community to support someone that's already doing something existing. We don't do counselling here at all, but we support all the shelters, Children's Aid, Victim Services, etc. Really, anybody that's going through a stressful time because of some form of abuse.
I also just feel anybody that ends up homeless for the most part has suffered some kind of emotional, physical, or any other kind of abuse. We have really just grown and only last year we have provided services for over 5,000 women and roughly 2,300 children. I am very passionate about helping men because I feel that women and children are the ones that most people focus on, but there are a lot of very wounded men especially if they've been abused as children. For instance, in prison, over 95% of the men that are in prison were sexually abused as children whereas in the women's prison, it is about 85%, so there is a connection. We run two men's groups in Toronto, and we've done 27 conferences on male victimization with the OPP. Whatever way we can support men we will. We also do a lot with the First Nations. We were the only non-native agency to help with residential school survivor settlements and also their educational credits. We have one lady whose name is Suzanne Smoke that comes in on a regular basis and gets a lot of clothing and then she takes it to five different First Nations treatment centers from Toronto.
We also do a lot of work in the area of legislative reform. We are not a government agency. I do not want ongoing government funding because we lobby for legislative reform. We will lobby for anything to help prevent childhood abuse. One of the programs we are lobbying for right now, and it's a provincial matter, is that 2 to 3 newborn's a year are thrown in the garbage in Ontario. I believe that this is the first stage of abuse when you throw away a baby. These babies need to be recognized that even if they took only a few short breaths, that they are a member of our community and we need to honour them. When I first heard about this, I couldn't do anything about it because I was at Starlight, but 11 years ago, I contacted the coroner as I heard about a baby that was found, and I said to him, "We'll take your babies." So about three months later, he contacted me with the first baby. A little boy that was just left in the woods, a full-term baby. I approached the local cemetery, Elgin Mills Cemetery. I went in just wanting one spot to bury this one baby and I left with 9 plots that each holds 5 babies. They donated a beautiful monument and a bench and when we do a funeral, we name the baby. The baby's name goes on the monument and we have a full-service. So far, we have buried 11 babies. We're working on something new that the States calls "The Safe Haven Law," where women can take a baby to the hospital and not get charged with abandonment. We don't have that here in Ontario, so that's what I've been working on, this provincial matter, and we've had a couple of meetings with the Minister of Health. Hopefully, once COVID settles down, we will be able to finalize this. We need to see as a society what we are really doing and protect those when we can to make it right. Another program we have is our "Derringer Dream Builds." For example, we renovated the Yellow Brick House, which is a woman’s shelter. We sent the women away for a couple of days and we totally renovated it. We have renovated a few shelters, a First Nation’s building and we did a woman's house. I see a need for somebody that's already doing something in the community, and I say okay how can we help and what can we do. We have grown so much; it is quite incredible.
SWY: What is one piece of advice you would give to a child or youth who is suffering from abuse and trauma?
EC: First of all, talk about it! Going back to when I was growing up, we didn't talk about it; it just wasn't out there. Now there are resources like Kids Help Phone and school counsellors, who are much more aware of abuse going on. So, I would say to a child to come out and talk about it. It's not your fault no matter what your perpetrator said. It's never your fault. It's not what you were wearing or whatever he says you made him do because what you are carrying is shame. Shame is the root of addiction, shame is the root of suicide, and shame is the root of so many of the emotional problems that we have. I carried that shame for all those years and thought I was dirty. I saw it as my own fault. In retrospect, how could I really think that, but when you're young, that's what your mind believes. So, number one is absolutely speaking about it. Even if it means somebody's going to be mad at you in your family, you need to speak about it because if you don't, that person's going to go on and do it to somebody else. I guess that would be the strongest thing that you could do. Come and get help and don't carry the shame that was put on you.
"It's not your fault no matter what your perpetrator said. It's never your fault."
SWY: How did you translate your own recovery into hope for others? What are some ways that others can do the same?
EC: Again, you have to come out and speak about it. You have to process it and it doesn't happen overnight. I mean I did mine really late in life and you probably heard it described as an onion where you just start peeling back, layer by layer. I think God made it so we wouldn't have to take on everything that happened at once as it would probably be too much for me. So, it was just like peeling back an onion in therapy, going through one memory at a time. I want to encourage people that recovery is possible. I have seen apart from myself so many people that have gone through this that are now leading really productive lives. One of the best things to do I can say for my own healing was to go out and do something for somebody else. We can get very self-absorbed and understandably so, but when I think of the energy that I put into trying to help somebody else it was the best healing for me. I could have used that same energy and gone and made a lot of money, but I wouldn't have healed the same way. So, number one get some help and talk about it. Number two, go help somebody else even in a small way. Look at me, I never expected Abuse Hurts to be this big. I just thought well if I can help one person in my own way, and here I am years later. We all have different ways to help. I would never want anyone to go through what I went through, but what I've been able to do because of what I went through is put value to what happened to me. You can take something that was meant for evil and turn it into something good.
SWY: What is one important thing you want others to understand about being a childhood abuse survivor?
EC: Not to judge. We may make judgments on people for the way they may be acting out that maybe you don't accept, but we should never judge. I want people to know that healing is possible. You can not only heal but you can live a very productive life when you learn the tools to function and then to help other people. I want to encourage them, and I want to give them hope. I’ve not only seen it in myself, but in so many other people that have suffered from severe abuse and are now living really productive lives. The one good thing about when you suffer from abuse and then you go into therapy, is you learn how to process life a lot. Most people that have had nothing happen to them don't go through that process and they maybe don't ever self-evaluate when they have to look at issues. Sometimes there's even a mixed blessing in the fact that you have some sort of therapy. I couldn't have done it without my faith and so for me, that was critical. We are Spiritual Beings. We are mind, soul, and spirit. I feel sometimes we deal with the mind and the soul and forget about the spirit. We are three in one, but I think you need to deal with all three parts of who you are for healing.
SWY: What are some ways that people can raise awareness and advocate for childhood sexual abuse in their community?
EC: I just think when they're comfortable telling their story. You know people can argue statistics and they can argue a lot of things, but they can't argue your experience and if you talk about what happened to you and how it affected your life, that is powerful. So, when you are healed enough, and I want to be really careful to say that you need to be healed enough, to then talk openly about what happened to you. Just get on board and volunteer with some other agencies that are working in this field. I think it's just opening it up again discussing it just like you are removing the shame from the issue and making people aware that the statistics are really scary. I don't think people understand how prevalent abuse is. So now that we have to be in isolation in homes, we know it's even worse. The rates of domestic abuse and child abuse have skyrocketed because of this. The awareness and talking about it and being out there are the most important things we can do. It's removing the shame. Participate and get involved in any way you can to make it better for others.