"A 'transcender' is somebody who's been through a challenge, and has not only overcome it but has turned it around and pays it forward."
Lori Poland is a childhood survivor of a high-profile child abuse case and has since devoted her life and career to ending child abuse and neglect, and to healing its cycles and ripple effects. She has spent her career working in mental health and the nonprofit sector as a therapist for children and families. Lori transitioned from therapy to assume the job of Executive Director for EndCAN, leveraging her background in business management and program development. Lori travels nationally as a motivational speaker talking about possibilities after trauma and the ripple effects of trauma on children and families, and has consulted within the legal system to advocate for change in the field and to develop greater understanding.
Watch our interview with Lori below:
SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with childhood abuse and trauma?
LP: I have both personal experience and professional experience with abuse and trauma. My personal experience is that at the age of three I was playing in my front yard and this was 1983 so kids played outside all the time back then. Most children over the age of six got on their bikes at sunrise and didn't come back until all the moms started screaming from the front porch that it was time for dinner. Anyhow, I was only three years old so I did not do that. It was my dad's birthday and he took the day off of work. He was painting our house, and we had just finished lunch. My brother and I batted our eyes at him and asked him for a second popsicle. So he went inside and got us another one as soon as my mom left to go back to work. While he was inside, just in those quick couple of minutes, a car drove up and had the passenger door open, and asked if I liked candy. Like any sugar-loving three year old, I eagerly said yes and we negotiated and he told me that if I went with him he'd give me candy and I jumped in the car. Moments later my dad came outside and he got in his car and took off after us. But by the time he got to the end of our street, he didn't even know which way I had gone. It was 12:35 in the afternoon. So, my abductor took me up to the mountains and he severely abused me, physically, sexually the whole nine yards, and then he put me in the pit of an outhouse toilet, like in a bathroom. It was a 15-foot hole, and he put me down there with the intention of me not living, and I lived for four days down there. Other birdwatchers didn’t use the outhouse that I was in as it was abandoned and old. So, four days later, this couple was driving by and the wife had to go to the bathroom. Eventually, they stopped and heard me crying, and so I was reunited with my family.
That was just kind of the beginning of my experience. I have a number of other experiences that people wouldn't want kids to have to go through, and I wouldn't want my kids to have to go through. It was my life and not that it was terrible. My parents did the very best that they could do with what they had and they were trying in every way to give me a normal life, but I'm not sure you can live a normal life after being raped at such a young age. So, that's my experience with child abuse. Around 15, I started speaking as a motivational speaker to groups that ranged from like five people up to thousands. Every single time I spoke, somebody would come up afterward, or call me, or write me, or would find a way to reach out and tell me their experience. I began to realize that this was something that so many people went through. For a lot of people, telling me was their first time telling their experience. So, first I felt honored. Second, I realized I have to do something with this experience, I can't just let my kidnapping, just be a story in my book. At 19, I gave a speech at a residential treatment facility for abused kids and that night when I got home, they called and offered me a job. So that was the beginning of me working with people who had experienced child abuse and trauma.
Eventually I took six years off to go into finance because I needed to see if I could be something other than this kidnapped kid. I was great in finance but it did not fill my soul. So I eventually went back to grad school and got my master's in counseling psychology and then additional certificates in child and adolescent therapy, family and marriage counseling, and infant mental health. My focus has been on attachment for the last 21 years. I believe that innately we're all born as pack animals because we're first animals, but then secondly, I found that every single person had some form of attachment disruption that I had known. They had some form of trauma, and especially if it occurred before the age of eight. I just learned and I listened to their stories and I began helping people. I spend every single waking moment of every day, trying to help people heal their attachment disruption, including me.
SWY: As the Executive Director of EndCAN, what motivated you to start this Foundation?
LP: So having worked in the field of nonprofit for like 21 years, I found that so many people in the fields came to it because they had bleeding hearts and wanted to help others heal, whether they have been healed themselves or not. Which I thought was really powerful. I found that the way this field was designed was in an attempt to respond to something, and not as much in an attempt to create something. Now, in no way is that me trying to say that it's bad or wrong. It's just that the drive to work in this field and to do this comes from our own experiences. I feel like so many things have been in an attempt to cover or plug or tape over this giant hole, which is so many hurt people. I've seen fortunately in my life issues like the LGBTQ movement, like suicide, like breast cancer, like smoking, that when I was young, nobody talked about it. I've watched in my 40 years of life each one of those things and so many others improve. Not because there was a program that did amazing things that helped, for sure, but because people started talking about it. People who have lived experience, all of a sudden started saying hey wait a hot minute I'm not alone, and look at how amazing I am. This made me think, wow, okay, nobody talks about their child abuse experience compared to other issues. A lot of that is because there is shame, and there is fear of hurting our family members, there is fear of parents feeling like we all failed. So, I started EndCAN because I wanted to do this for the field and for this topic, what I've seen so many others do for other topics that were once taboo.
SWY: What are some of the resources that EndCAN offers and what do you hope people will gain from using these resources?
LP: Yeah, so our biggest resource is for a community of survivors. We have an anonymous community, we have an open forum community, and we have an action-oriented community. The anonymous community is a place where people can go to talk about their experiences and seek support. The open forum community is a place for people to go and share their stories, and just kind of own their words and own their own voice because that's something that happens so frequently with childhood abuse and neglect is that we're robbed of our own vocal cords. Then there is the action-oriented community which has a few different options in it. We have a young champions council. So it's a national group of people under the age of 36, who volunteer on a board. It's for young professionals, young adult survivors, or anyone really there's no requirement. We've just begun it at the end of 2020, and really come together and focus on how to take action together, and how do we spread this word, how do we join with organizations like yours, among so many others to truly do this. Then another action-oriented group is our volunteers. So 2020 was our strategic planning year which was really cool. So 2021 is our action-taking year and this year we're doing the first-ever march. It's a national March happening in cities all over the country where we're calling upon people who connect to this, not victims not just survivors, not just family members, but supporters, believers, everybody to come together. We just need to support all the survivors, and eventually, the perpetrators will be supported because they were first survivors.
SWY: You travel nationally as a motivational speaker talking about your journey to becoming a transcender. What do you mean by this and what was your journey like?
LP: There is this remarkable social worker, her name is Diane Baird. She is the only reason I finished my graduate school program. I wanted to quit so badly on so many different days because my internship was challenging. Life was hard right and Diane called me one day and she said, you know, I'm just driving to work and I'm thinking about you. I truly believe that there are first victims, and then they're survivors, and then there are thrivers, and then there's transcenders, and you are a transcender. I was like, thank you so much but I didn't really know what she meant. So I googled it right because that's what you do. What I found and what I understood of the word transcender is somebody who's been through a challenge, and has not only overcome it but has turned it around and pays it forward. I just felt so humbled and proud and egocentric at that moment. I was so happy and I and I shared this in a speech once, and this lady in the audience made me a superhero cape, with a capital T on it. I just think it really stuck with me and I own it now. That is why I do what I do and it's exhausting and some days I'm broken but I keep getting up to do it over again.
SWY: You explain that one of the biggest barriers to combat child abuse and neglect is the social stigma that surrounds it. What do you think are some ways that we can reduce this stigma?
LP: I think that one thing that I found in my career and just like my experience in the world and this truly is just my opinion, but when something bad happens it's so easy for us to all want to focus on who do we blame, and why did this happen. This is my first response. My second response hopefully is what do we need to do so this doesn't happen again. It pulls me out of the anger and puts me into a place of solution. Where this stems from for me, is in grad school I had to take a diversity class and my teacher said the assignment was you have to work with people that you wouldn't otherwise work with, and the only people on that list at the time were sex offenders. I was like, all right, here I come and I volunteered and I did like 100 hours where I was only supposed to do 20. All of a sudden I realized that those people, the offenders that I was among were people, and almost all of them were survivors. What they did was inexcusable and their choice. Versus mine which is to do good instead of harm completely hurt my heart. So often what people want to do when we talk about child abuse is they want to litigate. They want to sue the bad guy, they want to out their family, they want to go that route. I haven't found that to be as helpful, or as healing and finding our own voices, and as living through compassion and blooming by way of modeling, how I want everybody around me to be. I know that hurt people hurt others. So, instead of hurting others, I'm going to love them. I have a quote right here that Don Ross said to me two weeks ago in a podcast recording. He said the difference between the offender and the survivor is that someone believed in them. This is what drives the work that I do, and why it is so taboo, and why we have to talk about it. We need people to come together and show that it's possible to get out of this and that it's possible to move on with our lives and have it be a part of our life. Not ignore it, not forget about it, not talk about it all day every day, not be angry and not repeat it. Instead to have it be a part of my identity just as much as being a woman, just as much as being a mother. I'm okay with that. I'm proud of my experience. I wouldn't wish it on anyone but I love what I've done with it and I'm okay with that.
SWY: One goal of EndCAN is to break the silence of childhood abuse and neglect. What do you think we need to do as a society to change this narrative?
LP: We have to come together and we have to hold the space and create a community for and with, and because of one another. I know that 99.9% of people who are offenders were once offended upon. I also know and what we don't have a statistic for is that most people who were abused, do not grow up to abuse. What we don't know is what did one group get that the other didn't. What I want to do is help people see that we don't have to offend because we learned, that we don't have to repeat the cycles and the things that we've learned. Even if we do yell at our kids, or hit our kids, or harm or neglect them, we don't have to keep doing it. There's always a time to stop. Always. There's always a time to say sorry and to change. So what we need to do is to come together and just talk and stop blaming and stop shaming and stop hiding and stop being angry and just talk.I think that if we do that, we're going to do some pretty cool things for this topic, you know, ideally, make it go away. When it does, that'd be so cool.
SWY: What do you believe are some ways that people can get involved in their communities to try and help end childhood abuse and neglect?
LP: We can get involved in so many different ways. So, if that means finding your local children's Advocacy Centers, or Family Resource Centers, or prevent child abuse America groups or showing up to a march, whatever it is, just do it. Just do it. That's it. Every time you see a child, be a light in their day. Every single time you see a kid, be a light for them. You know, that's all we need. We just need somebody who sees us when we're not seen as kids and we're being abused. So, see them.