This story is reprinted from The Fresno State Alumni Association as written by Marisa Mata. Originally published in the March 2017 issue of the Fresno State Alumni Association Newsletter. This story highlights social work alumna, Dakota Draconi. National Social Work month is celebrated annually in March. 

You see the Wall of Tears — a six foot wall with names burned into it. Kristin Grell. Brittany Scott. Jose Garcia…about 230 names of children who have died at the hand of abuse.

“Every day four children die from abuse,” says Dakota Draconi  — a woman who at one point wished she had become a part of that statistic.

In 2006 Draconi and some of her classmates did an activism project on child abuse awareness. What they learned was so powerful, they decided to start their own nonprofit, Breaking the Silence, with the intent of educating the community and empowering survivors of abuse.

Draconi, who received her Master of Social Work degree from Fresno State in 2012, was able to establish the organization as a nonprofit in 2008.

“They co-founded the organization with me. My wife was an integral part of the early days of the organization. And when it came time to do the [first] event, all three of my sons were fully involved. It’s very much been a family thing. And my boys are survivors too, so it’s important to them too.”

Breaking the Silence hosts four events every April, National Child Abuse Awareness Month, to get the community involved: Rock for the Children (a concert at Campus Pointe), Run for the Children (a 5k run), Walk for the Children (a candlelit vigil in River Park) and Speak for the Children.

Speak for the Children is held at The Big Red Church, in Tower District, just north of Fresno High School, has the Wall of Tears to honor those who didn’t survive their abuse, an open microphone and Survivor Medallion Ceremony for survivors of abuse and a presentation by Draconi.

In 1999 Draconi shared her story of abuse with one of her professors at Fresno City College, who then asked her to share it with the class.

“It kind of ballooned out from there. In 2001 I started speaking to almost all of the general psychology classes, and from there I got invitations to speak at Fresno State and Alliant. Now, organizations hire me to speak to their employees.”

“Part of my story is I’m a survivor of really severe, ritualistic childhood abuse. And for a long time I prayed to die, and I couldn’t die. I thought God hated me and that’s why I couldn’t die. And I really cursed my survivorship because it was nothing but pain and suffering and more pain and more suffering. I went from my childhood into a marriage that was horribly abusive. And then the first day that I told my story, and it made a difference, I realized that’s why I’m here.”

“I don’t curse my survivorship anymore. I honor it. Everything that I’ve been through has brought me to this place where I have something to offer people who are hurting and suffering.”

The Survivor Medallion Ceremony, which closes Speak for the Children, is perhaps the most empowering thing that Breaking the Silence does for survivors of abuse.

Survivors are invited to walk across the stage and receive their medallion as a way to break their silence against child abuse. Many medallion recipients walk across the stage weeping, because it’s such a life changing moment for them.

“My wife and I thought about it, and we thought about veterans of foreign wars. They’re soldiers. They’re signing up to fight a war and they risk their lives. They come back and we give them medals. From this concept came the idea of veterans of domestic wars. So it’s called the Survivor Medallion, it says ‘Survivor of Domestic War’ and we hand those out to any survivor who breaks their silence in any way. We honor their survivorship because they didn’t sign up for this. They didn’t choose this.”

To further empower survivors, Draconi plans for her organization to open a trauma institute in Fresno.

“If you want to see someone who is equipped to help survivors with such severe trauma, you have to go to San Francisco or LA. You can’t find it here. So our goal is to open a trauma institute right here in the Central Valley that’s fully grant funded, so survivors don’t have to be able to hold down a job to get help from us. It would provide them with everything they need — from occupational type counseling, talk therapy, art therapy, anger therapy, everything they need to become more productive members of society.”

Connect with Breaking the Silence on Facebook and Twitter to learn about upcoming events and ways you can get involved.

View the original alumni association story at the LINK.