Charitable Voices Work to Minimize the Trauma of Child Abuse

“We envision an Alexandria where no child experiences any type of abuse.”

A bold and uplifting statement spoken by Giselle Pelaez, the executive director of The Center for Alexandria’s Children (CAC), as she reflects on the past 10 years of service CAC has provided and the future it’s building toward.

The Center’s mission is to serve as the City of Alexandria’s primary resource for prevention, investigation, and treatment of child abuse. The goal is two-fold: to both strengthen families and protect children into adulthood. Coincidently, the CAC acronym also stands for exactly what it is: a child advocacy center. “The work isn’t always easy, but the families and children you meet make it worthwhile,” says Pelaez, who has been with the CAC since 2008. Pelaez has devoted her entire career to working with children impacted by trauma, from refugees to foster care to child abuse.

Three other local women, all with different career backgrounds but with the same vision, will join Pelaez in April at the CAC’s tenth annual gala to raise funds for the Center. Lori Morris, Joan Huffer, and Magaly Galdo-Hirst will feature different roles that evening as they support a cause near to each of them.

CAC’S 10TH ANNUAL GALA CO-CHAIRS & CHAMPION FOR CHILDREN HONOREE
Lori Morris currently serves as the president of the Bruhn-Morris Family Foundation, which supports public-private partnerships, early care and education system in the Alexandria area. Morris taught in Alexandria City public schools and has co-authored two books, “Inclusive Early Childhood Education: A Model Classroom” and “3 Keys to a Successful Circle Time.” Additionally, she is a founding board member of ACT for Alexandria and currently sits on the Community Wealth Partners board.

“There is no doubt that supporting the victims of child abuse, in the most respectful and effective way, is an essential service of The Center for Alexandria’s Children. The effects of child abuse are horrific, longlasting, and far-reaching. That said, the initial designers of the Center pushed for child abuse prevention as a core program,” says Morris, CAC gala co-chair and long-time supporter.

Joan Huffer worked in the U.S. Senate for 27 years with a focus on education and income support programs. She currently sits on the board of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, chairs the board of Voices for Progress, and is a trustee of the Alliance for Excellent Education. She has also served on the board of several other local nonprofit organizations as she devoted her career and philanthropic efforts to ensuring lower-income Americans have access to economic opportunity. “As long-time residents of Alexandria, my husband and I want to participate in efforts to address challenges facing our community, and in particular, our children,” says gala co-chair, Huffer.

The CAC board of directors is honored to present the 2019 Champion for Children Award to philanthropists Magaly Galdo-Hirst and her husband Thomson Hirst at this year’s gala. Through their Mason Hirst Foundation, the couple supports projects that address mental health, early childhood education, homelessness, child abuse and other social ills that hold people back from achieving their full potential. With their incredible support of non-profits in Alexandria and through their distribution of grants, the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in the community have been forever changed.

Galdo-Hirst who was born in Bolivia, enjoyed a 30-year career with the Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). In her roles Galdo-Hirst traveled throughout the Americas and Europe furthering the PAHO/WHO mission of a healthier future for all people.

These Alexandria residents’ involvement in the gala is a testament to their belief in the mission of the CAC, which uses a three-pronged approach to addressing child abuse and neglect. First, through investigation and providing a child-centered, multi-disciplinary team approach to each case.

“CAC’s system of coordinating the experts from investigators, crisis counselors, treatment providers, and social workers, is excellent at reducing the stress and trauma on the victim as they go through the legal process,” says Galdo-Hirst.

“By working with Alexandria’s police, social service agencies, and other involved parties, CAC created a more sensitive, humane way for child victims of abuse to be interviewed a single time in a childfriendly place where the child would feel safe and without having to tell their story repeatedly,” says Galdo-Hirst, a current ACT for Alexandria board member.

Second, the CAC focuses on prevention via free Learn & PlayGroups using a unique curriculum designed for vulnerable, isolated families of children birth through age five who lack access to quality, affordable early childhood and parenting programs. The groups focus on the “Strengthening Families” protective factor, social-emotional and language development of children.

“We were especially impressed by the Learn and PlayGroups program. It promotes healthy families and safe children by organizing sessions in cheerful environments, where parents, caregivers, and preschool children play and engage in developmentally appropriate activities. I have observed the joy of parents, caregivers, and children when participating. After completing these sessions, children seem to be confident and better prepared to begin their formal scholastic path,” says Galdo-Hirst.

The Learn and PlayGroups are a staple to the program offering support and development to both the child and their caregiver. It is a facet that has resonated greatly with Huffer as well.

“My husband and I both believe deeply that investing in children has long-term payoffs for them and for society. Learning more about research in the developing field of brain science has helped deepen our conviction. There is substantial evidence to support the idea that providing children who experience abuse or neglect access to services in a child-friendly environment can be an important part of helping them heal and become productive adults, rather than increasing the risk that they will eventually perpetuate what can become a vicious cycle of abuse and neglect,” says Huffer.

And finally, the CAC focuses on community education and outreach, raising awareness about the prevalence and consequences of child sexual abuse and educating adults about the steps they can take to prevent and recognize abuse.

“The public-private team that came together around the idea of The Center for Alexandria’s Children was able to take the concept from idea to program in two years. The team of professionals who work together at the Center to support all of the children and families is so much stronger than even very competent people working in isolation. The moms and caregivers who come together at each playgroup to support each other while they support their children are magical. I have a much deeper appreciation for teamwork and creating community than I did before my work with the Center,” says Morris.

As hundreds of thousands of children have walked through the CAC’s doors since 2008, the number of lives changed cannot be quantified but the positive impact can be felt by all of those involved.

“The Center is a fantastic example of a community coming together to tackle a devastating issue that impacts everyone. There are many ways to get involved – I would encourage folks to come to the Gala and learn more,” says Morris.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
The 10th Annual CAC Gala will take place on Thursday, April 4, on the Potomac River, with great music, fabulous food and a fantastic crowd, all while shining a light on Alexandria’s child survivors, the work of the CAC, and the support the community can provide. If you are interested in joining or would like to get involved, check out AlexandriasKids.org.

Jennifer Reeves
Jennifer Reeves is a former television sports anchor and reporter. A Northern Virginia native who earned her bachelor's degree at JMU and master's degree at Central Michigan University. She spent time reporting in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Alabama before shifting gears to freelance writing. Jennifer is a wife, first time mama, and an aunt to 32 amazing nieces and nephews. She loves meeting different people from all walks of life and spending as much time as she can outside.