Suburban Newsmaker of the Year: Erin Merryn

Schaumburg woman champions childhood sex abuse prevention legislation

Anyone seeking an inspirational story of triumph over tragedy needn't look any further than Erin Merryn.

Instead of succumbing to the trauma and shame two sexual predators inflicted on her at different points of her childhood, the 25-year-old Schaumburg woman is giving a largely silent epidemic an unrelenting voice.

“I could let these evil acts define who I am, or I can wake up this nation and try to prevent it from happening to other kids,” Merryn said.

In 2010, Merryn emerged as the driving force behind Erin's Law, a bill awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature that creates a task force charged with studying childhood sexual abuse and developing age-appropriate curriculum to implement in schools.

Merryn's mission to prevent children from falling prey to sexual abuse — or from remaining silent if they do — has captured a nationwide social network of fans whose votes secured her place as the Daily Herald's Suburban Newsmaker of the Year.

“This is incredibly humbling, especially considering the other nominees,” Merryn said. “Look at someone like (Army Staff Sgt. Robert Miller), who died for our country. That's a hero in my eyes.”

Merryn is fighting a different kind of battle, closer to home.

“Abuse thrives in ignorance and we must do everything in our power to change this,” reader Lilah Gardner wrote in support of Merryn. “Our children need to know they are not to blame and don't deserve to be hurt — helping them find their voice is crucial.”

One in four girls and one in six boys will be abused by their 18th birthday, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows. More than 90 percent of victims know their abusers, according to Children's Advocacy Centers, a nonprofit network of 700 facilities providing services to fight child abuse.

That was the case for Merryn, who was raped by a friend's live-in uncle at age 6 and repeatedly molested by a teenage cousin from 11 to 13.

Merryn is her middle name, which she uses in the public eye to protect her family's anonymity, most of whom live in the Schaumburg area.

Merryn says “safe touch, unsafe touch” and “how to get away and tell today” — are mantras she wants ingrained in today's kids, like “Stranger Danger” or “Just say No” would have protected her.

“I listened to my perpetrators' warnings to stay silent because it was the only message I was getting,” Merryn said. “Kids need tools and knowledge.”

The repeated abuse she suffered caused her numerous emotional problems. She's had flashbacks, nightmares and even panic attacks, has suffered from depression and an eating disorder. She admits to suicidal thoughts.

To further her healing, she wrote letters to her attackers and forgave them. She's had two books published about her plight and tours the country telling her story at conferences, fundraisers and schools.

In May, she quit her job at a counseling agency to give talks about her experiences full time.

Erin's Law currently doesn't require schools to teach about sex abuse, as Springfield is now more hesitant to pass unfunded mandates. But Merryn hopes school boards will want to adopt curriculum developed by the 15-person task force once it delivers its report to the Illinois General Assembly on Jan. 1, 2012.

She's confident Gov. Quinn will sign Erin's Law, seeing as no lawmaker voted “no” on the legislation at any stage. About 30 legislators signed on as co-sponsors upon hearing Merryn's three-minute testimony to the Illinois House legislation panel last month.

Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson said the governor is in the process of reviewing the bill.

“Gov. Quinn is very supportive of any measure that will protect our children and educate them on how to remain safe,” Thompson said. “It provides important steps toward giving schools the means to teach kids about the dangers of predators.”

Merryn envisions taking Erin's Law national, and she's already got the support of another former victim of childhood sexual abuse — Oprah Winfrey. Since appearing on Oprah's television talk show in October, she's gotten offers of help from the talk show host's staff.

“Here I was, a kid repeatedly silenced, and I got to share my story on one of the biggest stages in the world,” Merryn said. “I think it's fair to say I've found my voice.”

What you said about Erin

What she is going to accomplish will save children ... When you save a child, you save that child from growing up and being a damaged adult. The implications of her legislation are truly immeasurable.

— Kerri A. Williams

She's got guts and a desire to help make the world more caring. Her focus is on helping others. Let's have more of that.

—Kevin Burke

I cast my vote for Erin, the “activist” whose determination and courage will make prevention of child abuse part of our educational process within every state of America.

—Ellen Sherman

Few people have the courage she does, nor the ability to make as much of a difference.

—Chris Bostrom

Abuse thrives in ignorance and we must do everything in our power to change this. Our children need to know they are not to blame and don't deserve to be hurt — helping them find their voice is crucial. Way to go, Erin.

—Lilah Gardner

I hope and pray that all states can adopt this law. So many millions of children and adults are profoundly affected by this terrible event.

—Linda Pittman

She has changed so many lives in her short life. SHE has broken the silence on sexual abuse. ERIN = INSPIRATION.

—Tracy Silva

Most people would have quit given some of the issues that she has faced in her life. She has more courage and tenacity than any other 25-year-old person I have ever met.

— Laurie Meyers

Her courage, confidence and persistence will give a voice to children who otherwise were kept silent and helpless. Thank you Erin!

—Diane Rawls

Bless Ms. Merryn for trying to make a difference, while enduring the pain which is always going to be part of her psyche.

—Amy D'Aquila

I had the pleasure of meeting this amazing woman. She is truly a winner and someone to be held up as a role model for all young children.

—Steve Hawkes

Other notable newsmakers of 2010

Merryn, winner of the Daily HeraldÂ’s Suburban Newsmaker of the Year contest, wrote two books on her experiences with childhood sexual abuse.

What you said about the nominees

<b>Hannah Perryman, The student activist</b>

The courage Hannah Perryman shows is extraordinary. My children are 23 and 19; I have witnessed and heard of some very bad bullying. For Hannah to stand up and do something about it shows great character and strength. Her parents also must be commended for their guidance.

—Tom Fallucca

She is so strong for such a young person and a true role model to young women. As a mother to two daughters myself, her strength and determination are what I and all parents hope to see in their children.

—Kim Wedl

Hannah began this horrible chapter in her life as a child. I can't imagine the fear and agony her family suffered because there were no laws to protect her in our society. Amazing! She is my heroine.

—Barbara Rice

She is an inspiration to us all. She is my hero and I admire her courage to face this head on instead of hiding.

—Kristine Becker-Kristufek

<b>Matt Spartz, The soldier</b>

Matt Spartz is our eyes and ears in Afghanistan, putting himself in jeopardy daily. This is the stuff of courage, selflessness and devotion. Thank you for bringing his perspective to all of us at home. He should not be forgotten or overlooked.

—Mindy Merkle

I actually can put myself on the front lines with him when I read his articles. I get a tear to my eye, because you get to actually see what our soldiers are going through over there.

—Deb Waugh

Every day he elects to be above and beyond the average American's understanding of duty, while his open letters inspire us all to elevate our own standards.

—Mark Stanke

He shows grace and sensitivity to his fellow soldiers and to his surroundings. All Americans should read what this young man has written — his feelings, other soldiers' feelings, and honest and open facts on the day-to-day tribulations of the war they are fighting.

—Sandy P.

<b>Scott Tolzien, The quarterback</b>

Here is a guy who represents the full package — achievement, hope and caring for others, but never sought out the attention — very humble. He just goes about his business and influences people in positive ways. Especially in these hard times, he also represents the core value of work hard and good things will come to you.

—Lydia Rohn

<b>Robert Miller, The war hero</b>

In no way to belittle the contributions of the others, his bravery, heroism and sacrifice are unparalleled.

—John W. Glueckert Jr.

I nominate Robert Miller for being willing to serve his country when few these days choose to do so, and for unselfishly making the ultimate sacrifice.


This young man gave the ultimate sacrifice, his life, to protect other soldiers and our freedom. His family has also made an unimaginable sacrifice. All the candidates except Robert Miller are alive and able to enjoy the rewards of their efforts. Let us recognize those who sacrificed their lives to save others and preserve our freedom.

—Kathy Holzheimer

He offered up his entire existence to benefit his fellow comrades and country. His memory should be honored above the rest. The other nine will have more chances for glory in years to come.

—William Wallace

<b>Lee Dewyze, The 'Idol'</b>

It's gotta be Lee DeWyze. He made his dreams come true this year while changing lives all over the U.S. and the world with his music.

—Krystle Grafton

Love when an ordinary guy gets an extraordinary opportunity and makes the most of it.

—Lori Weaver

He is a local guy who has worked so very hard to get to the point in his life where he is now, staying true to himself and remembering Mt. Prospect.

—Carolyn Herriges

<b>Evan Lysacek, The Olympian</b>

All of the candidates are excellent. However, Evan achieved international news. He is very talented, professional and a very nice, humble man.

—Dorothy Wiese

<b>Joe Walsh, The dark horse</b>

Joe Walsh is my choice due to his maverick effort to accomplish the impossible. He took on a very popular, financially supported progressive Democrat, Melissa Bean, in a very blue state against all odds.

—Mary Kinastowski

The national press ignores it, but Joe won with true grit coupled with passion and commitment.

—Roman G. Golash

<b>Michael Ventrella, The 'Loser'</b>

When I first saw him on “The Biggest Loser,” I did not think he had a chance but over the weeks and months, he demonstrated a huge heart and inner strength.

—Lynn Nowinski

<b>Yvonne Dinwiddie, The watchdog</b>

In a year when the citizenry rose up against government intrusion and wasteful spending on all fronts, but especially nationally, she represents the power of the individual in the local arena.

— unincorporated

She represents, on the local level, all that made 2010 so exciting politically. She saw her local government poised to burden taxpayers further with an expensive, unnecessary project, bothered to take action and was successful. Such an engaged citizen deserves kudos.