A black and white photograph of a young girl in a strapless full-skirted white dress, posed against a garden gazebo, hangs over Lynda Alston’s desk at ChildSafe.
The viewer may think the young girl’s back is to the camera for artistic purposes, but it is primarily to conceal her identity. She is a victim of sexual abuse. “This is her quinceañera portrait, taken out by the therapy garden,” Alston remarks. “She wanted to take it on campus, and have it hung here, to show other children that you can get your childhood back, you can get your dreams back, after you’ve been abused.” Alston, a petite, sunny blonde in a chic blue printed wrap dress and black boots, is the CEO and executive director of ChildSafe, a nonprofit support organization for sexually abused children and their families. The waiting room is filled with toys, small scale furniture, comfortable squishy couches, teddy bears, an aquarium, coloring books — everything the coolest play room would ever need. Kids seem relaxed, some playing quietly, some huddled close to family members.
Alston understands the tough reality of the job, saying, “Whether the kids are smiling or not, no one is here for a good reason.” The sad subject matter can make people uncomfortable, so in her many community outreach talks and meetings, Alston likes to emphasize that ChildSafe is about happy endings. When abused and molested children arrive, they feel weighted down, but through ChildSafe’s programs and support, they can regain their confidence and sense of happiness — they can regain their childhood. According to national statistics, one in four girls and one in six boys are molested as children, a statistic mirrored here in Bexar County, but only 15 percent ever reach out to report the abuse. ChildSafe, a pleasant, modest campus off Highway 90, hopes to eliminate run-around and provide immediate care and answers for families struggling with sexual abuse. Child Protective Services, the San Antonio Police Department and the assistant district attorney’s representatives are all within a few yards of the ChildSafe offices. The ChildSafe building includes administrative offices, spaces for counselors and caseworkers, interview rooms, meeting areas and a complete examination room for doctors. It’s heartbreaking to realize some of the young victims come to ChildSafe to learn that they are pregnant, and yet, the doctor’s exam can be both enlightening and therapeutic. “Sometimes,” Alston says, “this is the first time the child has ever seen a doctor. Sometimes the child will tell the doctor things they won’t tell their parents or caseworkers. And many times, having an examination and hearing the doctor tell these children ‘You are fine. Your body is fine. You are not broken.’ is the most important moment in their recovery. It relieves so many fears.”
ChildSafe sees more than 1,700 sexually abused children per year, as well as their non-offending family members. The organization aims to provide a sense of normalcy and ease to a very difficult emotional, physical and legal process. Its goal is to help change the entire family dynamic, and much of the work is done with parents to help them break patterns from their own childhood. “We sometimes see the mom longer than we see the child,” adds Alston. The work is ongoing. ChildSafe counselors check in with the family every four to six months until the child is 18 years old — that can be more than a decade of continuity in some cases. Alston emphasizes this long-term commitment occurs for two reasons: “We found that more than 40 percent of children who had come to ChildSafe for support and treatment were later being revictimized by a new perpetrator. By staying in contact with the child and family, we’ve managed to bring that down to 3 percent.” Additionally, when and if the abuse perpetrator is brought to trial, that can happen years after the original incident of abuse, opening up old wounds for the child and family and necessitating additional counseling and support. Before joining ChildSafe, Alston was in the banking industry for 24 years, originally as an accountant, where a large part of her heart and personality still lie. “I talk better with numbers,” she laughs. “I still write my memos in Excel!” She and her husband, Tim, and three small children were living in Houston in the mid-’90s and craving a slower pace and a more family-friendly environment. Alston wanted to stay with Bank of America, where she was a senior control analyst, but the move to San Antonio meant trying something new — marketing.
Shortly after moving to San Antonio, she got her feet wet in her new role as regional marketing manager for Bank of America. However, in her first foray into nonprofits, Alston soon seized the chance to become vice president of marketing at the Witte Museum, coordinating and overseeing all marketing, advertising, promotion and public relations for the opening of the multimillion-dollar H-E-B Science Treehouse. She spent three years at the science museum, helping launch a project that resulted in a 400-percent increase in annual attendance at the Witte. After that once-in-a-lifetime project was completed, Alston returned to banking, but with a new direction. “I knew I wanted to stay involved in the community, in outreach,” she explains. “I had an understanding boss who helped me explore that.” At Sterling Bank, Alston created and ran the Sterling Bank Volunteer Corps, generating more than 1,800 hours annually in volunteer work, as well as managing the company’s United Way campaign, ending with a high of 92-percent employee participation.
Later, while at the Trust Company, Alston began to match the bank’s officers with board positions based on their personal interests and discovered ChildSafe. The very first connection occurred when she brought a bank officer to the premises to discuss community outreach. She was drawn to a child’s artwork that was hanging on the wall. It turned out to be by her own son, Van, drawn when he was 9 (he’s now 21) and displayed at ChildSafe through the SHARE (Students Help Art Reach Everyone) program. It would be the first of many signs. Alston was deeply involved in the Alamo Heights United Methodist Church, both as a member and as the drama ministries coordinator. Her pastor urged her to consider volunteering. Feeling “on the edge of change,” she completed the 40-day challenge of The Purpose-Driven Life, trying to find her new direction. She agreed that volunteering was crucial and that she wanted to help children. Beyond that, she wasn’t sure. Linda Jimenez, with the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner event, reconnected Alston with ChildSafe. After a few years spent learning the program, Alston became a board member. In a purpose-driven note to herself, she wrote, “Someday, I want to run ChildSafe.” Within seven months of joining the board, the job opened up.
The former executive director left for a new opportunity, and Alston volunteered to help with the search for a replacement. When it was suggested that she take the job, she initially turned it down, feeling she wasn’t ready. Then a major donation from the Greehey Family Foundation came through, and Alston thought of all the meaningful work that could be done with that money. She became ChildSafe’s new CEO in April 2008. “I know it’s corny, but my goal at ChildSafe is to put myself out of a job,” says Alston. Her message to the community is simple: “If you have kids in your life, listen to them and pay attention. Trust your intuition. In 98 percent of cases, the perpetrator is someone they know, love and trust. “Abuse can still happen in the home, no matter how well you’ve taught your children, so trust your intuition. If you see something that just seems off, like, say, an older man and a younger girl who are acting more like boyfriend/girlfriend than family members, don’t be afraid to call Child Protective Services,” she advises. “They’re the professionals; let them decide.” Is it difficult to stay focused on the positive, to renew hope every day in the face of heartbreaking stories? “There are always stories you wish had gone another way,” she admits, but working with ChildSafe also allows Alston to witness incredible acts of kindness and support, often between strangers.
“A family came to us with nothing — they had given up the car, the home, the job, everything in order to protect their two children from a predator in the family,” she explains. “A board member got wind of the problem and within 24 hours was able to donate a used car. It turned everything around for them.” With a car, the father was able to find a job; with a job, the family was able to find a home. Sometimes it’s just one step that can change everything.
And sometimes it’s just one dollar. In response to ChildSafe’s annual holiday appeal, letters were sent to area families asking for financial support and volunteer hours and to consider ChildSafe in one’s estate planning. Alston recalls receiving a package from a young boy, letting her know he did not have a will yet, but would volunteer when he was old enough. It included a single dollar bill as a donation. She smiles and laughs softly telling this story, asking “Isn’t that incredible?” With the open hearts and support of this community, combined with Alston’s passion and purpose, it is clear ChildSafe will be providing happy childhoods for years to come.