Liz and Sarah had a lot in common in 2010.
Liz and Sarah had a lot in common in 2010.
They were casual friends. Both girls were in their middle teens. Both girls lived in Germantown Hills and were students at Metamora Township High School. Both harbored college dreams.
And, most importantly, both had a secret — a dark secret of sexual abuse — that was taking a terrible toll.
But, in 2010, they would take different paths. For one, 2010 would bring a life-ending experience; for the other, a life-altering experience.
A life lost
Sarah Burt, was by all accounts, a bubbly girl. She had an infectious smile.
She was described as compassionate, generous and caring to all those around her.
She was a member of the National Honor Society at MTHS.
She was involved in the National Youth Leadership Program in Washington, D.C.
She was a member of Rebuilding Together in Peoria, and swam for many years with various swim clubs in the area.
Sarah was a lifeguard at the Metamora Pool and also volunteered for the swim team working with younger swimmers.
She was planning on going to pharmacy school after graduation.
She enjoyed skiing, family time on the beaches of Lake Michigan, and roller coasters.
However, there was a part of Sarah that was very troubled.
That is the only explanation for Sarah driving her car to the area of Routes 116 and 117, stopping, parking on the side of the road, and then walking into the path of a semi at 1:30 p.m. June 29, 2010.
Her parents looked for a reason, but they knew.
Years earlier, while in junior high, a swimming coach in the Peoria area, allegedly abused Sarah sexually.
“She had good days and she had bad days,” Lisa, said. “We don’t know what happened that day.”
Lisa found it hard to talk about the abuse she said her daughter suffered and the aftermath.
“Suffice it to say the outcome was not what we hoped for,” Lisa said.
Her alleged abuser was never tried on the charges.
Trying to create something positive out of her daughter’s tragedy her parents created the Sarah’s Smile Scholarship.
The scholarship got under way shortly after Sarah’s death with memorial money and money collected from fundraisers.
The scholarship fund is established at CEFCU in Sarah’s name for victims of sexual abuse in sports-related activities.
Liz would become the recipient of the first scholarship from that effort, but not before confronting her own terrible secret.
A life saved
Liz, not her real name, had kept her secret for 11 years.
She had been sexually abused from the age of 6 to about 10.
“It was my dad,” she said. “I finally, last year, got up the courage to come forward. A lot of things were getting to me. I told my mom. We talked to a counselor who called DCFS. That night he was asked to leave the house.”
Her father had to leave the house because Liz was only 17 and there were younger girls in the house.
“I didn’t know it at the time I came forward, but when the investigator spoke to my sisters they came forward, too,” Liz said.
Liz said when her father was questioned he confessed to his crimes.
“When he got into court he denied it. But, he was convicted,” she said.
Her father is now serving a 40-year sentence for predatory criminal sexual assault — a Class X felony — at the Menard Correctional Center.
When asked if going through this process, which had been denied to Sarah, helped her, Liz said, yes and no.
“For me I had to deal with this and school. I didn’t want to think about what was happening in the background of my life,” Liz said.
“I just wanted a normal school experience like everyone else.”
But, there was also great relief.
When she came forward Liz said she was not sure what her mother’s reaction would be.
“I didn’t know if she would believe me. She believed me and that made everything easier,” Liz said.
“I didn’t even think of him as my father. He was just there.”
Liz had shown courage, and, she said, the source of that courage was Sarah.
“I had heard tidbits about Sarah at school. I didn’t know what had happened, and I didn’t ask her,” Liz said.
On June 29, 2010, when Sarah died Liz was in Germany, part of a Foreign Exchange student program.
“Her suicide came as a surprise. It hit me hard. When I found out I couldn’t believe it,” Liz said.
“I was reading about it on Facebook. I didn’t believe it, at first,”
What happened to Sarah intensified feelings with Liz about her own abuse.
“It’s possible I could have followed Sarah’s path if I hadn’t come out. I kept trying to shut it out,” Liz said.
“It was really getting to me. If I hadn’t gotten it out I probably would have gone insane.”
Liz credits thinking about Sarah with her developing the courage to tell.
“I talked about Sarah. A friend told me, ‘You have to speak out for yourself, and your sisters.’ I’m glad now I did. I owe it to Sarah.”
Liz said what Sarah has left behind is a stark illustration of why it is important for sexual abuse victims to come forward.
“There was an overpowering sense of hopelessness. I got to the point where I had no voice. I didn’t know what to say or who to say it, too,” Liz said.
“I was so young I didn’t know where the line between father and daughter was supposed to be drawn. By the time I realized this wasn’t proper I was too afraid to speak up.”
Sarah’s mother, Lisa, said she has found great comfort in Liz’s story, and how Sarah’s loss was her gain.
“This does help. It helps when you help other people. I think the act of reporting helps with healing,” Lisa said.
“Lots of kids and adults don’t speak out to the police. Sarah wrote about the abuse in her journal. Someone read it and we became aware. She went to the police eventually.”
But, there was to be no prosecution in Sarah’s case.
Liz said what she has learned from this experience, and wants to pass on, is that getting it out is the best way to deal with abuse.
“Find your voice and speak out. There are so many people who genuinely care,” Liz said.
“Go out on a limb and help yourself. If you do there are others who will help you.”
That is exactly the message Lisa wants to spread.
“We are really proud of (Liz),” Lisa said. “It’s important to report abuse, even if it’s 10 years later.”
Lisa said, Liz, now 18, and studying engineering at Illinois Central College in East Peoria with the help of the scholarship, is proof of that.
“(Liz’s) mom came to us and said, ‘I feel like Sarah saved my kid’s life.’ That’s healing,” Lisa said.