Program founded by foster mother spreads information on child abuse

Monday, August 18, 2008
Leasa Stone takes Green Bear, her creation, to fairs and schools in the area to educate children about sexual violence. Green Bear puts on educational shows and performances for more than 10,000 students a year. Stone and Green Bear posed Aug. 8 at the Scott County Back to School Fair at St. Denis in Benton, Mo. Kit Doyle kdoyle@semissourian.com
Leasa Stone takes Green Bear, her creation, to fairs and schools in the area to educate children about sexual violence. Green Bear puts on educational shows and performances for more than 10,000 students a year. Stone and Green Bear posed Aug. 8 at the Scott County Back to School Fair at St. Denis in Benton, Mo. Kit Doyle kdoyle@semissourian.com

Founded by a foster mother, a program in place in many Southeast Missouri schools since 2002 works to make children and adults aware of abuse, how to prevent it and how to respond to it.

Known as the Green Bear program, it was named after "Baby Ty's" comfort toy, a green bear. His foster mother, Leasa Stone, developed the course as a way to channel her grief after the 2-year-old's death in 2000. He died three months after release from foster care with Stone, allegedly from abuse by his father.

At the time, Stone was contacted by a hospital in Paducah, Ky., and was able to visit the child. "They told me they didn't expect him to live," she said.

Stone, a pediatric nurse since 1989, did not want to see him die in vain.

Stone contacted SEMO-NASV's executive director Tammy Gwaltney, and by 2002 a program on the prevention and awareness of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, funded with $53,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services, was presented to 200 children -- mainly school groups -- in Southeast Missouri.

Five years later, with the same funding, the program is presented to about 10,000 children.

Two puppets, "Green Bear" and "Tiffy," visit schools, faith-based groups, service groups and others who would like to educate children about abuse. Programs for youth who have outgrown puppets include topics such as "Hugging, Kissing, Touching ... and all that Other Stuff," for middle schoolers and "Surviving the Dating Game," for high schoolers.

Adult programs educate parents, day care and social workers, administrators, child and family practitioners, medical professionals, clergy and church staff and law enforcement on recognizing child abuse, who to report it to and how to be sensitive to children.

Stone has been a foster parent since 1998, but gave it up in 2007 because she became so busy with the Green Bear program. She said much of the program development came from the children she fostered and her daughter, Tiffany, who she fostered since age 10 and adopted at age 13.

"We focused a lot on sexual abuse because so many of my foster kids had been sexual abuse victims," Stone said. "When Tiffany was 8, she told her mom the baby sitter was abusing her and her mom told her it was her fault for provoking him." The program also emphasizes that abuse is never the child's fault, even if it is not reported.

Both Gwaltney and Stone want abuse to not be a subject considered "off limits."

"It's like telling kids to look both ways before crossing the street," Stone said. "We want them to know it's OK to tell about someone touching them, and just like needing to be told over and over again about crossing the street, it's the same with sexual abuse."

Stone and Gwaltney also said it is important to talk to children about not keeping secrets because it may be how abuse begins, especially on the Internet.

"It may start with a child and the person they play games with on the Internet just exchanging photos of each other," Gwaltney said. "That might lead to the perpetrator saying something like 'Wouldn't it be fun to swap pictures with our shirts off?'"

Gwaltney said the program's goal for the future is "to see child abuse eliminated from our culture." The program works to complete this goal through education, information and community outreach.

The grant limits presentations to Southeast Missouri. Currently, six counties are being served, including Cape Girardeau, Scott and Bollinger counties.

The Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence Green Bear program has a website, www.greenbearmo.org, that provides information for parents, children and professionals. SEMO-NASV can also be contacted at 332-1900 or greenbear@clas.net.

cpagano@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 133

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