Photo: Heather OggKate Eastman was 23-years-old when she came forward. First she told her mother. Then they went to the Charlottetown police together.
Less than three years later, in March 2015, Eastman-along with her mother, Deborah McEachern-founded Turn on the Lights. She wanted to raise awareness about the very thing she had kept quiet for so long: childhood sexual abuse, which, according to a 2014 report from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, happens to as many as one in 10 Canadians.
“The scariest thing you can do to an abuser is to use your voice,” says Eastman. She did just that, pursuing her stepfather through the Prince Edward Island judicial system. He was sentenced to four years in federal prison for sexual acts that began when Eastman was six and ended when she moved out at 20.
McEachern left her husband following Eastman’s disclosure, but the family’s difficulties were far from over. McEachern wasn’t able to float the household-which still included Eastman’s younger brothers and sister-on a single income while also dealing with the debt her husband had accumulated.
A year and a half later, the family lost its home. That unexpected fallout led to discussions about, among other things, the lack of financial assistance for those coping with the effects of sexual abuse.
“Going through the aftermath, we learned that there’s nothing out there telling you what you should do,” says McEachern. Turn on the Lights doesn’t so much tell survivors and their families what to do as help them figure out their next move.
Eastman has given talks in area schools, and candlelight walks and “teal shirt days” (teal has been adopted as the colour of sexual abuse awareness and prevention) have upped the group’s profile. But it’s social media that’s been invaluable. Eastman receives an average of four messages a week from survivors, most of them in P.E.I.
“Our website and Facebook page are healing places,” says Eastman. “We talk about mental health. We talk about victim services. And we talk about how each situation is different-what works for one person might not work for someone else.”
Andrew Muttart was sexually abused over the course of three years by an older community member in his small P.E.I. town. He wasn’t able to talk about his experience until he was 29, more than two decades later. At that point, he had lost a lawn-care business and a home through gambling and drinking, two of the only things that distracted him from his pain.
These days, Muttart copes through communication: with Eastman, with family and friends, with strangers. In addition to his volunteer work with Turn on the Lights, where he does outreach and fundraising, Muttart is part of Men Matter, a separate program aimed at male survivors.
“Men are taught that they’re supposed to be tough, and that’s one of the main reasons I kept things inside. But I have a son who is seven-the age I was when the abuse started. I realize now how much it affected me growing up, and how much it affects me as a parent,” he says. “It helps to talk with people who understand what I’m going through.”
That feeling of support is what Eastman-who recently entered her fourth year at the University of Prince Edward Island, where she’s wrapping up a degree in family science-hopes to replicate.
“I want Turn on the Lights to be my lifelong career. I want to always be the person who says ‘I’ve also been there. I get it.’ Had there been help like that when I was growing up, I would have spoken up sooner.”