When a child becomes a victim of abuse, whether verbal or physical, the next steps towards recovery can seem like a difficult and daunting task. The Child Advocacy Center (CAC) and its staff work closely with an all-encompassing team of professionals to help children of abuse and neglect find the safety and services they need. Moreover, the center relies heavily on volunteers to help comfort children and assist staff members with day-to-day activities.
Brandon Ptak, 21, is a senior biology major at the University of Florida who balances his time between volunteering at the CAC and studying to become a physician in pediatric emergency medicine.
“The children we work with are some of the most underserved children in all of Alachua County,” Ptak said. “Everything I learn and do while volunteering will make me a better physician.”
Children who arrive at the center come from a variety of backgrounds and have experienced various instances of abuse such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect or domestic violence. What lifts these children out of such dire situations and into a safe, accepting environment are the staff and volunteers at the center.
“When they come in, you see these children at their absolute worst,” Ptak said. “But after playing with them, getting to know them and watching them go through therapy for a full year, they are completely back to those healthy, happy kids who just want a toy or a snack.”
After enduring abuse and entering the legal system to overcome that abuse, many children find themselves overwhelmed with the process. Instead of deciding which shirt to wear to school or which game to play, these children are facing their abusers in a courtroom, some of whom are family members.
However, the CAC’s services and relief efforts provide these children with the steps and courage to move forward.
Ptak said that when he puts on a friendly face, he knows he’s going to see a child who wants to play with him every time he comes to the CAC.
“That’s something they can look forward to,” Ptak said.
An exceptional quality of the center comes from its ability to provide all-encompassing staff and services to children and their respective families.
“A lot of times when people hear our name, they think ‘oh, we only help children who are victims of child abuse,’” said Sabrina Sy, the development director at the CAC. “Yes, that is our main mission, but we do a lot of other things, like educating the community as well as helping families.”
Family members of children who experience abuse are affected by the trauma the child endures as well, Sy said. The center works to expand its services from helping children of abuse to educating the community and supporting affected families entirely.
“We advocate for the child, children in the community in general, and for families of the children to make sure their needs are met, as well,” Sy said.
As a nonprofit organization, the CAC aims to serve the community efficiently and effectively.
“We do not charge a single penny for anything we do for the families, and sometimes people find that quite surprising,” Sy said. “Also, we have a 24/7 on-call response team, so at all times we have a forensic interviewer, an advocate and a therapist.”
Although many college students in the area comprise the bulk of volunteers at the center, the spring and summer breaks leave the CAC looking for more help. The center encourages people, whether a college student or a member of the community, to volunteer and discover the rewards of supporting children of abuse and helping them overcome their experiences.
“We never want children who are at the center to be alone, so we always want them to be accompanied, paid attention to and played with,” Sy said. “We want to make sure they feel loved and cared for.”