PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) – When a violent crime happens in central Illinois communities, many times the victims face a long road to recovery. But how do they get to a point of healing? There is one local program working to offer solutions.

“I was dealing with domestic violence with my kid’s dad for years and bypassed a lot of it until he put a gun to my son’s head,” said one local mother.

It was the breaking point for her as a survivor. We’ll call her “Ondrea” for her safety and privacy. 

“My son would talk about it so freely, like nothing ever happened,” said Ondrea. “He could be walking in the grocery store, and he would just [say,] ‘My dad put a gun to my head.’ He thought it was normal.”

Ondrea reached out to the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria. There, she met a legal advocate who introduced her to Safe From the Start- a free, referral-based therapy program for children up through the age of five.

“We see young people who have experienced trauma or abuse,” said Carol Merna, the CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse.

“It could be an age-inappropriate movie, video games, a shooting in the neighborhood, a fight, domestic violence, of course, sexual assault, anything that they’ve seen that affects them in an adverse way, that’s an experience that we want to be able to help them process and hopefully help them find some recovery from it, so it doesn’t affect them the rest of their lives,” Merna said.

She explained since 2001, more than 650 families, including Ondrea and her son, have utilized the services of Safe from the Start.

“He just would constantly talk about guns and constantly talk about killing people and he started becoming very inappropriate,” said Ondrea.

As part of the program, a therapist performs baseline behavioral and development analyses on the child and a stress index on the caregiver. Then the child participates in about six, 30-45 minute long play therapy sessions.

“When children are very young, they don’t always have the language to express what’s happened to them. But with play therapy, play is how a child learns,” said Joni Lyons, the program administrator who has worked at the center for the last 14 years.

Throughout the program, the kids have access to costumes, games, books, figurines, and a sand tray where they can create their own worlds as the therapist analyzes. Clients are taught how to process their emotional traumas in healthy ways.

Success looks different for each client, but research-based follow-up assessments and caretaker responses offer insight. 

“It’s exciting to see lives changed. And you think there’s hope. There’s always hope, and these children are getting services to renew their hope, to renew the caregiver’s hope,” said Lyons.

That’s been the case for Ondrea, after she said play therapy helped her son open up about his trauma to program therapists. 

“He’s happy. He’s a normal, five-year-old now. You wouldn’t know that anything ever happened to him,” she said.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation and needs help, you can reach out to the Center for Prevention of Abuse’s crisis hotline at 1-800-559-SAFE (7233).