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Children's landscape brightens a Safe Place

April 08, 2002|BY MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

Bunnies, tall grass, rainbows, ladybugs, kids doing handstands, watching ball games and riding bikes - these idyllic childhood scenes are in stark contrast to the living nightmares experienced by the young victims of physical and sexual abuse.

In an effort to soothe and quiet the chaos child abuse victims are often experiencing, The Washington Child Advocacy Center's Safe Place on Walnut Street is undergoing an artistic makeover, bringing both realities together.

"I love to share my artwork," said Brandy Merchant, an art teacher at Hancock and Conococheague elementary schools. "But this project is touching so many others besides myself."

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Teresa Thorn, program manager of Safe Place, said the hallway walls were cold and white and decorated with doctor's office pictures way above the heads of most children.

"I wanted the atmosphere here to feel safe and in tune with our goals," Thorn said. "It's been fun watching it come to life."

Thorn's son, Hunter, told his mom about Merchant. "He said she could do anything," Thorn said. "I got in touch with her and Hunter was right ... she can do anything."

On the weekends, Merchant has been journeying to Hagerstown to work on her mural. Sunday, she spent seven hours and completed more than two full sections of wall space in the myriad hallways of the center.

The basic theme is nature and while each wall has its own theme, all are on a child's level of vision and reflect how childhood should be, Merchant said.

At the door, the progressive scene begins with several bikes in a bike rack. Walking on, there are a couple of youngsters sitting on a bench watching a ball game.

Around corners and down corridors, the art entices the visitor on through fields of flowers, three-dimensional trees, butterflies and ponds.

In sharp contrast to the kids featured in these happy vignettes, the clients at the center have been seriously abused, either physically, emotionally or sexually. Sometimes all three horrors are involved.

Just more than a year old, the center saw 262 children in 2001, Thorn said.

Washington County authorities have hoped the center would allow for the handling of abuse crimes with the least impact on the young victims.

The first of its kind in the Tri-State area, the center features a room with a two-way mirror so a child can be interviewed one-on-one by a comforting social worker while police and prosecutors watch and listen from the next room.

Everyone involved in the child's case has office space at the center. There's a therapist who specializes in child sex abuse cases, social workers, an assistant state's attorney and officers from all three county police agencies.

Ten years in the planning, the center was funded through a $130,000 federal grant and a $30,000 grant from the National Children's Alliance.

Thorn said Merchant's paints and other supplies are provided via a grant. Merchant's labor is donated.

A graduate of Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, Merchant earned her teaching degree from Frostburg State University. The mother of two has been teaching art for seven years and is currently seeking her master's degree.

"This is a grand canvas for me," Merchant said. "Plus I feel I'm giving something that makes people happy."

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