Elgin mom-to-be taking her Erin's Law abroad
Erin Merryn speaks with enthusiasm, rattling off the list of trips around the globe, the hours of research and meetings promoting her cause.
She shows no signs of fatigue, and she seems ready to balance a new family and an ever-growing mission to protect children from sexual abuse.
Back in her Elgin home after a weeklong visit to Alaska, she sits at her desk, stacked with textbooks and children's stories, across from a picture of her smiling with her husband and a large computer screen that magnifies her petite frame.
The couple is expecting their first child in July (the gender will be a surprise). Eight weeks after her due date, the Schaumburg native will fly for 29 hours to Australia -- newborn in tow. Her husband will provide an extra pair of hands for the baby when she speaks at a conference there.
Merryn seems unfazed by the whirlwind schedule. She's now taking Erin's Law abroad, to testify before lawmakers and break through the language and cultural barriers.
"I have been just go, go, go," she says.
Merryn has a winning streak on her side. In January 2013, Gov. Pat Quinn signed her namesake law, requiring elementary and middle schools to teach age-appropriate lessons on child sexual abuse and assault. A dozen states have passed versions of Erin's Law, and it has been introduced in another 25 state legislatures.
In all, that's more than half the country. State by state, Merryn tours schools. Meets parents. And passionately defends her campaign.
She runs into people who think the law has something to do with sex education classes. Others worry about funding.
Merryn tells them Erin's Law works to give kids a voice if they become victims of sexual violence, to empower kids on personal body safety. "How to get away and tell today" and "Safe touch, unsafe touch" are simple slogans children understand.
The author of three books also offers tips on how to train teachers or counselors at low cost to school districts.
The statistics bear her out: 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
It's hard to imagine her as she once was, a teenager who had suicidal thoughts, an eating disorder, panic attacks, nightmares.
"I was such a miserable person," Merryn says.
She was raped at 6 years old by a friend's uncle and, later, repeatedly molested by a cousin.
At 13, she broke her silence when she learned her cousin also molested her younger sister. Merryn has long argued she would have done so earlier had teachers taught her to speak up.
"The only message I got was stay silent," Merryn said.
When her cousin asked for her forgiveness in a letter, Merryn says she let go of the shame and anger.
"My innocence was stolen, my trust was taken," said Merryn, who uses a pseudonym to protect her family's privacy. "But the one thing I can take back from these men is my voice."
That voice has reached the Oprah Winfrey show, magazines and even a South Korean newspaper.
On Saturday she will receive another recognition, the Champion of Children award, at a fundraising gala for the Children's Advocacy Center in Hoffman Estates, where she got counseling as a teen.
"For people who have experienced trauma like sex abuse, to see somebody survive that and do as well as Erin has done is inspiring in its own way," Executive Director Mark Parr said. "She's a model in (showing) that doesn't have to define you."
Merryn, who quit her counseling job four years ago to focus on Erin's Law, relies on donations to cover her travel expenses.
New York and Alaska are some of her toughest frontiers. Legislative committee chairmen against school mandates have killed the bill in those states.
"One person can put their foot down," Merryn said. "It's amazing the power one legislator can have."
Back home, Merryn says she will be a protective mom and give her kids the tools to "go out and see the world." She hopes to have a large family with her husband, whom she met in a Wisconsin coffee shop.
"He was the only man still standing there when I told him that I wanted 10 kids," she says laughing. "Every other man ran away."
But he also had her trust.
"Forgiving my perpetrators was easier for me than trusting men," Merryn said.
Now, besides gearing up for the baby, she's working with state officials to track what progress Erin's Law has made. Merryn wants to see more schools develop programs that encourage parents to continue the conversation at home. And she's already heard of children reporting abuse.
"It lights the fire under me again, reminding me of why I'm doing this," she said.