Posters tell children, teens they matter

CHARLESTON — God loves you and wants you to be happy. That is a message that children need to know, particularly when it comes to their personal safety.

One way that students in Catholic schools will learn it is through posters soon to be distributed by the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of Child Protection Services. The posters are part of the diocesan safe environment efforts to help prevent child sexual abuse.

The office will send posters to all Catholic churches and schools in the state before the end of July, according to Bonnie Sigers, the safe environment manager. Sigers hopes the posters will be hung in places that are visible to children so they will tune into the message that they matter, their safety is important and people are here to enforce that safety.

That message was created by the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which had an advisory board comprised of mental health, education, law and business professionals to help create the wording and imagery.

“But we don’t think we could have matched a better message than ‘you matter,’ ” Sigers said.

One of the concerns that participants in the safe environment programs have expressed to Sigers in the past is how to address the issue with children in a way that will not frighten them or create an atmosphere of distrust.

“We’ve come up with posters that we believe are engaging for children that gives them a basic prevention message,” she said. “They are age appropriate. So what a child looking at the poster will get is a brightly colored and simply put message that ‘you matter.’ It gives them just enough.”

While the diocese is committed to creating safe environments, Sigers said it could always be safer.

“Education will always be our primary defense in child sexual abuse,” she said.

The posters were created in English and Spanish, one of each for primary grades and others for middle and high schools. The children’s version states: “God loves you and wants you to be happy. So if someone makes you feel weird or uncomfortable, hurts or threatens you, tell your parents or teachers or grown ups you trust. We are here to listen and take action.”

The teen poster has the message: “Reach out. You matter. You are family. Survivors of sexual abuse often feel lost,  isolated and don’t know who to turn to. We want to help you get your life back. We are here to listen and take action.”

Sexual abuse is a sensitive topic and Sigers said they strove to find the right balance of information.

Fred McKay, principal at Charleston Catholic School, said a visual aid can help children.

“The posters themselves are not over the top,” he said. “The younger kids’ poster sends a positive message. It is not frightening or alarming. I like the message that ‘you matter.’ ”

Sigers likes that message too.

“We want everybody to be aware it’s a never-ending process, and we will constantly be looking for new and better ways to create safe environments,” she said.