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Tracy Frank, Published April 20 2012

Once a victim, now a voice: Survivor of child abuse uses personal experience to help others

If you go

What: 22nd annual Kids Are Our Business Breakfast

By: Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead

Where: Holiday Inn, Fargo

When: 7:30-8:30 a.m. April 24

Tickets: $65

Contact: (701) 293-7273

Online: www.raccfm.com

FARGO - Daria Odegaard was a victim of child abuse. Now, she’s a survivor and advocate.

“You go from a point where you’ve been a victim and it kind of is your identity to being a survivor, where you acknowledge and accept that it happened but it doesn’t define you and it doesn’t affect your every waking moment,” she said. “That’s something that I think is really powerful – to acknowledge that you are a survivor.”

Odegaard grew up with a controlling father who was physically, emotionally and verbally abusive.

“Even looking back to my very young childhood, I can see and remember the abuse, not only my father toward my mother, but also toward us kids,” said Odegaard, who has three younger siblings.

“I remember times where my dad would walk down the hall and just shove me into a wall or punch me in the shoulder,” she said.

Odegaard says she was also told what to wear; she was never allowed to cut her hair, and she was taught that her place was at home, barefoot in the kitchen, she says.

“There’s a time where initially it seems to consume you, and you almost identify yourself by the experience – the experience and you are kind of one in the same,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get over it, but you accept it and it no longer consumes you. It’s no longer your identity; it’s a piece of your life’s story.”

Odegaard’s story changed 14 years ago when her mother decided to leave her husband after 25 years in an abusive marriage.

From victim to advocate

Odegaard’s mom contacted the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead and re-established contact with her family.

“He had done a really good job of isolating us from any family,” Odegaard said.

Her maternal grandmother lived nearby, but she hadn’t seen her daughter or grandchildren in years, Odegaard said.

“Through the help of my mom’s family and Rape and Abuse, we left,” Odegaard said. “I owe my life to this agency and to my extended family.”

But Odegaard was hesitant to go into counseling when her mom first brought her to the center.

“I was angry and didn’t think I needed counseling,” she said.

Her dad had told her the agency was made up of people who broke up families and hated men.

But it didn’t take her long to learn that was just another lie.

“I was learning all this brand new information and I just couldn’t take it in fast enough,” Odegaard said. “It was so transformative and so empowering. I had never felt so strong and empowered in my entire life.”

Odegaard was in counseling at the center for more than a year. Shortly afterward, she started volunteering there.

“I really wanted to give back to the agency,” she said.

Odegaard went to college intending to become an attorney who worked with abused women and children. But she decided she wanted to work hands-on with the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Then an employment opportunity came up she just couldn’t turn down.

As the education coordinator for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, Odegaard uses her experience to help others.

“It is cathartic in a way,” she said. “I feel like having had the experience myself, it’s just another tool in my toolkit that I can use.”

Odegaard, who has been with the center for almost eight years, is in charge of public outreach in the schools, colleges and community. She works to prevent what happened to her and her family from happening to anyone else.

“My story has made me what I am today, and it’s given me my life’s goal, my passion,” she said. “Having had such intimate knowledge of what it’s like to experience these situations, it just makes me that much more determined to do what I can do to help people who are in similar situations.”

Everybody’s business

When it comes to prevention, Odegaard said it’s important to understand that domestic violence and sexual abuse are everybody’s issues.

“You might not be aware of it, but I can guarantee you know somebody who has been affected by domestic or sexual violence,” she said. “When one in four women are victims of domestic violence, and one in three are victims of sexual assault, you know somebody.”

If you see or hear something that doesn’t seem right, go against the social norm of staying quiet and say something, she said.

“There’s that potential that reaching out could have put an end to the violence,” Odegaard said.

Simply asking if someone who might be a victim of abuse is OK could give them the out they need, she said.

If you see something happening in a store or public place and you don’t feel comfortable getting directly involved, call store security or law enforcement, Odegaard said.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. “It’s hard and it’s confusing to jump in there and try to save the day yourself. You can always bring in those individuals who have more authority.”

It’s Odegaard’s dream to look back on her life and see that she had a small part to play in transforming society.

“It’s really what keeps me driven,” she said.

But just because she’s accepted that part of her life, doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

“When you’ve experienced a trauma, there are always going to be triggers,” she said.

Even now as she and her husband talk about starting a family, memories she had laid to rest from her childhood have resurfaced.

“Part of being a survivor is acknowledging there are going to be triggers, but when you’re triggered, it’s no longer one of those situations where you completely fall apart,” she said. “You allow yourself to go through the experience and you’re able to cope and deal with it. It’s a whole process.”

How to help

More than 300 children were victims of sexual assault and more than 150 children were victims of domestic violence in the Fargo-Moorhead area last year, according to the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead.

Children made up 31 percent of the victims of sexual assault and 8 percent of the victims of domestic violence the agency saw in 2011.

An additional 32 children received services through the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center after being seen at the Red River Children’s Advocacy Center.

A young adult whose life has been affected by domestic violence will tell his story and how he found help through the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center at the organization’s 22nd annual Kids Are Our Business Breakfast event April 24.

During the event, the public will be able to learn about the agency and the help it provided to the 503 children affected by domestic violence and sexual abuse last year.

There is also a Pinwheels for Peace display in Island Park through April 27 of 503 pinwheels, representing the number of children helped at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center last year. Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota provided the pinwheels.