Mural makes Safe Place in Hagerstown more welcoming for child abuse victims

July 10, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN -- For children going to tell adults about painful and possibly embarrassing physical or sexual abuse, walking into the office with plain white walls was unwelcoming and intimidating.

Then, six years ago, Brandy Merchant of Hancock painted the halls of Safe Place Washington County Child Advocacy Center with outdoor scenes, adding splashes of color to the Hagerstown office that reminded some who worked there of a "doctor's office," Safe Place Director Teresa Thorn said.

When the center expanded its offices last month, Thorn called on Merchant again to paint the plain white walls of the newer section. Merchant, 36, teaches visual arts at North Hagerstown High School, and has been painting the hallways and lobby of the office for about three weeks.

Safe Place is a child advocacy center that responds to the investigation, treatment and prosecution of child abuse cases. The victims of those crimes are in the Safe Place office daily. The offices are in the H.W. Murphy Community Health Center at 24 N. Walnut St. in Hagerstown.


"I really believe in what they are setting out to accomplish here," Merchant said.

Merchant said she hopes to complete the murals today, including paintings in the medical exam room. The theme of the Safe Place murals is the outdoors. The lobby, which is nearly complete, has scenes of the ocean, fields, a train and a meadow. The paintings continue into the lobby with fields, trees and children drawing in chalk on a sidewalk.

The scenes incorporate regional sites in Maryland, including the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. There also is a train on the wall by what will become a teen reading area.

Merchant said the medical exam room will include a lot of green, and will show a lot of animals.

"It was a very doctor's office feeling," she said. "It really needed some life."

Merchant said the murals have gotten a "warm response" from children. Thorn said the detail in Merchant's paintings gives children something to focus on during a difficult time.

"It's cheerful," Merchant said of her acrylic paintings. "It helps get their minds off of what they're actually here for."

Merchant has been a Washington County Public Schools teacher for 12 years, and was teaching Thorn's son at Conococheague Elementary School six years ago when Thorn asked her to paint the murals.

Merchant is donating half of the time she has spent painting at Safe Place, and Thorn said a nonprofit branch of Safe Place has paid for the remainder and also paid for her supplies.

Including the work she did six years ago, Merchant believes she has spent about 150 hours painting the offices.

"I'm so excited that they have this here," she said. "It's been a huge ... a huge change in the whole place."

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