BRADENTON -- Survivors of sexual abuse broke the silence Tuesday.
Dressed in teal, they took to the streets and walked along U.S. 41 urging others to "Walk in my Shoes."
Participants walked as part of an annual event started by Lauren Book, a child sexual abuse survivor and nationally recognized child protection advocate who walks 1,500 miles every year from Key West to Tallahassee in 42 days to honor the 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States.
Participants, many representing Book's organization Lauren's Kids, walked to the Manatee Glens Rape Crisis Center in Bradenton on Tuesday afternoon for the Sexual Assault Awareness Day Rally.
Book flew to Tallahassee, where she stood by as Gov. Rick Scott signed four bills into law getting tougher on violent sexual predators. Scott and legislative leaders also wore teal ties.
The teal recognizes the start of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
For keynote speaker Jen
Bicha, the Bradenton event was a return to her hometown, where she said she was sexually abused by her own brother.
"I am one of you," Bicha said. "Sadly, I am also a statistic."
At the age of 9, Bicha said the rape began. She grew up in a sheltered home where sex was not discussed.
"Even if I wanted to tell someone, I didn't have the vocabulary," Bicha said.
At the age of 11, her father witnessed the abuse but instead of protecting her, she said, he blamed her.
Others failed her, too.
At the age of 15, she confided in a teacher at her Christian school and her pastor. They did nothing.
"Nobody protected me," Bicha said. "Nobody chose to listen to me."
Because no one did anything, Bicha's brother went on to sexually abuse others, she said, including her sister.
Going away to college, Bicha was still haunted by the abuse she had endured. Finally, she confided in a family friend who listened and believed her.
"It was 22 years before I knew what it was to be safe and free," Bicha said.
Her journey did not end there, she said. Four years ago, Bicha and her sister reported the abuse to Bradenton police. She was greeted by an advocate from Manatee Glens.
"Sadly, my entire family chose to disown me, but the support I received by Manatee Glens bridged the gap," Bicha said. She said her side of the courtroom was filled with supporters, while her family sat on the other side.
Her brother was convicted and sent to prison.
"I stand here safe, healthy and free," Bicha said.
Cathy Choate Wilson, director of children's services and community programs at Manatee Glens, said she hopes the event will continue to inspire the community to be more open to allow children and adults to come forward when victimized.
"I think everyone can attest that children shouldn't ever be victimized," Wilson said.
Several other survivors shared their stories during the rally.
Patricia Lara said she was sexually abused for 10 years.
"Unfortunately, my mother never believed me, and until this day she still does not believe me," Lara said. "Needless to say, she failed miserably as a parent."
A couple years ago, Lara said she came to the Manatee Glens Rape Crisis Center for help, and the experience changed her life.
"It's our job to protect the children, and if you get anything from my words today, please let it be this," Lara said. "You must always believe children when they speak out about sexual abuse, because being sexually abused destroys you enough already, but not being believed by the one person you love most, the person who is supposed to protect you above everything else, murders your soul."
Lara said she is still working on forgiving her mother, and is grateful for Manatee Glens. She urged parents to protect their children.
"Please teach your children to come to you if anything happens to them and let them know you will always, always believe them," Lara said. "Be careful who you trust your kids with; remember, the abusers are not always strangers."
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.