This past Wednesday morning, Lauren Book bounded energetically down the steps of a giant recreational vehicle. In athletic shorts, sunglasses and a hat, Book looked like she was dressed for an afternoon of tennis or a light jog. What she was really gearing up for was a 21.8-mile walk.
In the parking lot of Project Help, the Naples-based nonprofit that offers support and counseling to victims of sexual abuse, Book and her team drew into a huddle, discussing the day’s strategy. Around her, eager staff and board members from Project Help put on sunscreen and filled their water bottles.
In just a few minutes, the group would be off, walking along U.S. 41 Trail from Davis Boulevard all the way up to Estero.
For a victim of sexual abuse or assault, healing can be a very long journey. One step at a time, victims struggle to put their lives back together, and put their horrifying past behind them.
Which is why Book walks. For the past three years, Book, a “20-something-year-old” who is herself a sexual abuse survivor, has spent more than a month of each year walking across the state of Florida, raising awareness for sexual abuse prevention.
This year, for the first time, the walk came through Naples.
“It’s so exciting to have her here,” said Michelle English, the executive director of Project Help. English, who was planning on walking at least a little bit of Wednesday’s trek alongside Book, added, “It’s always important to have awareness and info out there, the more we can get the word out, the better.”
And the crew walking along U.S. 41 was hard to miss. Book has her own staff of eight or so employees, who help her with logistics, drive support vehicles and document the entire journey. Add to that the handful of staff from Project Help, a few media folks and two vehicles and a very large RV, and the whole production caused quite a visual on U.S. 41.
“It’s about raising awareness,” said Book. “I mean, as a non-profit we’re always also looking to raise money, but, this walk is really about awareness and about bringing visibility to the local resources you have here in Naples, like Project Help.”
And for Book, it’s also about creating a positive from a negative.
“I am a victim of female sexual abuse. I was abused from the time I was 11 until I was 16 at the hands of my female nanny. It happened 365 days a year, seven days a week, and for many years I never shared it with anyone. Finally I got the courage to tell a friend and from there I got help. But this walk really is about turning a very negative, awful experience into something positive.”
Over the next 39 days, Book will keep moving toward that positive, one step at a time. As she walks from place to place, she’ll preach her gospel of education and awareness.
“We know that sexual abuse is preventable with education,” says Book, who has a degree in elementary education and has written extensive curriculum for the schools on preventing abuse. “Our foundation has been around for about 10 years, but a few years ago we said, ‘We’re missing something here, we need to be educating our kids about staying safe,’ and that’s when I started working on the Safer, Smarter Kids curriculum.”
Book’s walk will continue north from Naples to Fort Myers, and then up to Tampa. Eventually, she’ll end her trip in Tallahassee, where she’s lobbying for several bills that protect victims of sexual abuse.
But as of Wednesday morning, those lobbying goals were still several hundred miles off. As the young advocate headed down Davis and onto U.S. 41, the day’s mission was to simply put a few more steps between Book and her past, and to get a few steps closer to permanently eradicating sexual abuse forever.