By Reggie Ellis
woodlake – Caring for a garden is like caring for children. Caretakers must provide seedlings with nutrients, rays of sunshine and positive reinforcement to allow them to develop and grow into mature plants. But just as important, caretakers must also be guardians pulling out weeds that threaten to harm their garden, even when the weeds appear to be non-invasive plants.
And in Tulare County there are lots of weeds. One out of every 11 children in Tulare County will be a victim of child abuse. The statistic seems overwhelming, but two cities have proclaimed themselves as “A Community for Child Well Being.” Woodlake became the second city to adopt the designation in Tulare County, and possibly the nation, last summer. The mantle was reaffirmed and etched into stone, literally, when the community dedicated its downtown garden with a plaque embedded into a boulder during a ceremony on April 27.
The ceremony was emceed by Ramona Chiapa, executive director of the Tulare County Child Abuse Prevention Council (CAPC), who said child abuse is something that affects the entire community long after it happens and that the entire community should play a role in preventing it by reporting signs of child abuse to the proper authorities.
“It breaks my heart to see what some of the children in our communities go through,” said Chiapa while choking back the tears. “This place is a symbol that we all play a role and can make a difference in a child’s life.”
Woodlake Mayor Rudy Mendoza reminded those in attendance of the promise the community made when the proclamation was approved by the City Council on June 27, 2017. The proclamation stated, “all Woodlake residents acknowledge that its children are entitled to be loved, cared for, nurtured, and encouraged to reach their full potential; and whereas, every child is entitled to live in a peaceful community, to feel secure and to be free from violence, from abuse and neglect, and from lack of concern for their well being.”
Mendoza echoed his comments from that meeting during the dedication, saying that he would only approve the proclamation if the community was committed to reporting child abuse whenever they saw it.
“This is not something driven by just the City Council, it has to be driven by the community,” he said. “This has to be more than a symbolic gesture. I want Woodlake to be a community where we never have to worry about children being abused.”
Mendoza pointed out that the garden itself serves as a reminder of the power of positive thinking. Once a rundown parking lot with weeds growing through the cracks in the asphalt, city leaders decided to transform the blighted area into a beautiful gateway garden connecting its remodeled main street to a brand new concert plaza, city park and community center.
“This was once a parking lot and look what we have here today,” the mayor said. “We don’t just have a better looking city, but a city that keeps children safe from abuse and crime.”
About 50 people gathered in the garden for the dedication and held blue pinwheels symbolizing the ever-present opportunity to be a positive influence in the life of a child. Among those in attendance were volunteers with CAPC’s Parenting Agency Collaborative Effort (PACE). Back in 2013 several agencies, including CAPC, began offering parent leadership classes for parents in several local communities.
“These weren’t traditional parenting classes, but leadership classes, showing parents how to be activists in their communities,” said Chiapa. “This was to show them that they could have a voice.”
A group of Woodlake parents coordinated through the Woodlake Family Resource Center, began collecting signatures for the proclamation presented to the City Council. Mostly mothers, the group had originally planned to dedicate a bench to mark the proclamation, following the example set by Farmersville, the first city to proclaim its designation as a Child Well Being community. When they approached City Administrator Ramon Lara with the idea, he instead suggested dedicating the garden, which at the time was just in the planning phases. Mirian Mendiola said thanks to the PACE program she and other parents have been able to get involved and affect positive change in their community. They have petitioned for new school band uniforms, provide volunteers for crossing guard duty and increase healthier options for school lunch menus.
“I am proud of the support the we have received from city, schools and Family Resource Center,” Mendiola said.
Another mother, Teresa Correa, summed up the dedication best, “As a mother you constantly worry about your children and we want them to know we are here to fight for them.”
Farmersville was the first city to pass the proclamation when it was approved by the City Council on Dec. 14, 2015. The idea for the proclamation came after the death of Sophia Acosta five years ago in Exeter. The angelic 3-year-old was found lifeless on the floor of her mother’s apartment police and paramedics on May 2, 2011. She was later airlifted to Children’s Hospital Central California where she remained in critical condition on life support before she died from her injuries on May 11. Christopher Rey Cheary, the mother’s live-in boyfriend, was convicted on Nov. 14, 2016 of the toddler’s murder, sexual assault, and torture. He is currently serving his sentence on death row.
Former CAPC director Billie Shawl followed up Farmersville’s proclamation with a bench monument in front of the white chapel at the corner of Farmersville Boulevard and Front Street. Sitting on the bench is a teddy bear reading a book inscribed with “Sophia’s Story.” The bench was dedicated exactly one year ago from Woodlake’s garden dedication in April, which is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
According to the CAPC, a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in Tulare County, a terrifying number considering the statistics that follow those children through the rest of their often short or agonizing lives. Eighty percent of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4. Nearly one-third (30%) of children who are abused will abuse their own children, are more likely (30%) to commit violent crime in their lifetime and 36% of women in prison were abused as children.