When the First Lady asks for your assistance, the typical answer is, “How can I help?” But when First Lady Susan Hutchinson called up Heather McKim to ask for her help chairing the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas’ Woman of Inspiration event in 2018 and again in 2019, it wasn’t just a sense of obligation that made McKim’s heart swell; it was that her years-long passion for helping children who have been victims of abuse and neglect had come full circle.
McKim was elected city clerk in Bryant in 2011. Wanting to get more involved in her community, she began volunteering with the local Boys and Girls Club. She heard heartbreaking stories of children who had been abused or neglected and decided she needed to do more to help.
With fellow community members, McKim started the Saline County Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, working with mayors and businesses across the county to bring awareness to the problem. McKim wanted to start a center where kids could go directly after a reported instance of abuse, but wasn’t sure how to get the funding or resources.
So she did what she could: raise awareness and volunteer her time. It wasn’t until Governor Asa Hutchinson was inaugurated in 2015 that she discovered the First Lady’s platform was the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, a nonprofit that checked all of McKim’s boxes.
McKim conveyed her passion to the First Lady, who promised to keep her in mind for future projects. Fast forward to December 2016 when she got the call to chair the Woman of Inspiration event.
“It was amazing,” McKim says. “I had experience doing large events, but to me, this was so personal with the CAC. It’s such a passion that I took ownership of it. Then to be asked to come back and do this for a second year...”
McKim joined forces with Kerry Moody, director of communications and education for the Arkansas Secretary of State, to co-chair the 2019 Woman of Inspiration event. The duo shares the same passion for the organization, as well as credits the First Lady for bringing the mission of the CAC to the spotlight.
“What the First Lady has brought to the table for the Centers is education,” Moody says. “I’d never heard of them and they’ve been around for decades. Honestly, that’s a good thing; I’m grateful I never needed one. But the fact is that if I did come into contact with somebody who needed that help, I wouldn’t have known where to send them. But the First Lady has advocated so hard for this specific organization.”
As the CAC has grown in awareness over the years, it’s also grown in reach. Today there are 17 centers across the state and seven satellite centers, compared to the 14 centers in 2016. And these centers are crucial as the CAC served more than 6,000 children in 2018 alone.
One of the most thoughtful aspects of the CAC is that child victims only have to tell their story once. That story is recorded and shared with prosecutors and investigators to allow children to begin the road to healing.
The CAC staff is equipped to deal with the trauma that comes with abuse, offering therapy and mental health resources. Due to the emotional nature of their jobs, hearing horrific stories of abuse and helping children through their trauma, the CAC also provides counseling services for employees and their families because of the toll their jobs can take on them. There are even plans to increase statewide counseling offerings and additional services for staff.
The CAC also partners with local law enforcement, DHS, Arkansas State Police, mental health professionals, the FBI and more to obtain justice for children. All of these services come at no cost to victims or their families. Looking forward, the goal for the CAC is to have a brick-and-mortar center in every county.
“In some of the really remote areas where you have a situation like this occur, families might not go to a center that’s two counties away or they’re not going to be able to drive,” McKim says. “If they had one in their own county, they would be more inclined to use it. We just want the accessibility for the kids.”
The Woman of Inspiration event has been instrumental in bringing awareness to what the CAC does and raising funds to continue opening more centers and mobile units across the state. And while it is a gala-type event, the point is to shed light on what the CAC does and why it’s such an essential organization in the state.
“On the one hand you have the abuse, and on the other you have a big party, and that’s a weird conundrum,” Moody says. “But the idea is that we’re celebrating the survivors. We’re celebrating their rebirth. It’s a strange situation that we may be in because it’s tough, it’s a heavy subject. And almost every year at this event, tears are shed. People share their stories. It’s heavy and heartbreaking. But the fact is, they’re there to share their story and inspire others.”
That careful balancing act is made easier by honoring both the Woman of Inspiration honoree and an adult survivor with the Blue Ribbon Award each year. This year, the event will honor Donna Malone, a woman whose passion for helping children led to Arkansas being the second state in the country to close legislative loopholes and label all incest as rape. She also brought forward the CAC model, pushing for state money to support the establishment and continued funding of the CAC of Arkansas.
“Donna has a heart for child abuse victims and to help serve them in the best possible way,” says Elizabeth Pulley, executive director of the CAC. “She was doing cutting-edge research years ago for Arkansas when her husband Percy Malone was an Arkansas senator. Donna and Percy helped bring awareness of hurting children, inspired communities to develop CACs, fought for funding for the CACs, connected with nationally recognized organizations on trainings in forensic interviews and worked with UAMS on training in mental health. What an amazing legacy Donna has by giving the hurting children a voice.”
McKim’s full-circle story isn’t quite finished. In January, she started a position as the chief operating officer for the Arkansas Attorney General, working in the office that is actively combating these predators on a daily basis. And in April of last year, McKim finally got to see one of her long-standing dreams come true — Saline County opened its own CAC satellite center.
“The day that that happened … I mean, tears of joy. It’s sad that we have to have it, but I’m so thankful we do. That’s where my story really has come full circle to know that we now have that center in Saline County, we have that help for kids.”