BROOKSVILLE - For the past five years, Lauren Book has walked thousands of miles across the Sunshine State to raise awareness for child sexual abuse and sexual assault.
This year, Book is expected to walk 1,500 miles over 42 days in a journey that starts in Key West on March 16 and ends in Tallahassee on April 22.
And, on Friday, April 4, Hernando County residents can join Book, who is walking 20 miles through the county.
"I just think this is so important, because her mission is to prevent and end child sexual abuse, and educate the community, and I think definitely by (her) coming to Hernando County that's what we're doing, we're raising awareness," said Janine Hammett, program director of the Child Advocacy Center of Hernando County. "And the more people that we can get to walk with us, the more powerful our own message will be in our community."
Hammett said the morning will start at Mid-Florida Community Services, 820 Kennedy Blvd. in Brooksville, at 8 a.m. with a proclamation reading by local officials. The walk starts at 8:15 a.m., and lasts until 5:30 p.m. The route goes through downtown Brooksville, past the Hernando County Courthouse to Jefferson Street. Walkers will take Highway 98 to Broad Street, and walk down U.S. 41 to Spring Hill Drive, then west across the county to U.S. 19.
There will be a lunch break at the Publix at Barclay and Spring Hill Drive.
Hammett, along with Shannon Sokolowski, executive director of the Dawn Center, and Det. Liz Tinkham, of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, who work together with other community members on a response team for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, are working to recruit walkers for the Hernando leg of "Walk in My Shoes."
Sokolowski said she participated in the walk last year in Tallahassee with Book.
"They rally at the Capitol steps. The governor spoke and it was extremely powerful," Sokolowski said. "So I came back from that last year and told Janine (Hammett) and Liz (Tinkham) we've got to get her here next year.
"To have who is now a national figure here in our community in Hernando County, we're really excited about that too."
Book was sexually abused by her nanny for six years as a child. Book started an organization, called Lauren's Kids, that works toward preventing child sexual abuse through education. According to the organization's website, 95 percent of sexual abuse can be prevented through education.
Book has also published a memoir called "It's Okay to Tell," and has worked to pass numerous state laws to protect victims of sexual violence.
Claire VanSusteren, a spokeswoman for Lauren's Kids, said thousands come out to walk with Book across the state.
"Sometimes it's hundreds of people, sometimes it's just her walking on a highway," VanSusteren said.
VanSusteren said last year an 80-year-old woman came out to walk a few blocks, and confided in Book she had been abused earlier in her life, but never told anyone about it.
"She's removing stigma, because I definitely think when you're a victim of any sexual offense as a child or as an adult, there's a lot of embarrassment, shame, guilt, self-blame that comes with all of that. You see Lauren (Book) and she's this bright, shining example of how you can be a survivor rather than a victim and she's communicating to children it's okay to tell somebody," Sokolowski said.
Last year, the CAC of Hernando County saw 169 children with sexual abuse allegations, Hammett said.
"I'm praying it brings more awareness, so that people will notice what's going on inside instead of keeping a blind eye," said Tinkham, who investigates domestic violence and sexual assault for the sheriff's office. "A lot of children's cases are unreported, and we've been seeing people come to us as adults with stuff happening to them as children because no one would talk about it."
Walkers can walk a few miles or the entire 20. The walk is free, and participants who register at laurenskids.org receive a t-shirt.
The local organizers hope more than 100 walkers will show up, no matter what their background is.
"This is a great way for survivors to participate in awareness without having to self-disclose. They can just come out, put on the same T-shirt everyone else is wearing and participate, not necessarily have to explain why they were there. I'd love to see them come out in droves," Sokolowski said.
Abuse can be reported by calling the Florida Department of Children and Families hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE. The Dawn Center's hotline is (352) 686-8430, and the CAC can be reached by calling (352) 754-8809.