Founded by former Hollywood actresses Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson in 1959, Childhelp is the nation’s oldest and largest national nonprofit dedicated to the prevention, intervention, and treatment of child abuse.
Throughout their 60-year journey, high profile celebrities such as Betty White and John Stamos have championed the cause, using their talents to bring the issue of child abuse to the forefront of America’s mind. One special ambassador dear to Childhelp’s heart is John O’Hurley, whose role as J. Peterman on Seinfeld is only a small part of his successful career as a Broadway star, voice actor, singer, comedian, and author.
O’Hurley was first introduced to Childhelp thanks to a round of golf, and he’s never looked back. We caught up with him to learn more about Childhelp and how he uses his stardom to help children across the nation.
What originally drew your heart to Childhelp?
I love golf. That doesn’t sound like a direct connection to rescuing abused and neglected children, but some Hollywood contacts invited me to play in a Childhelp celebrity tournament. I had no idea a day on the links would forever link my heart to this amazing mission. The moment I learned about the scope of the problem — the five children lost each day to abuse — I was determined to be part of creating change. Suddenly, I had a lot less time to practice my swing because I was traveling all over the country for the mission. Luckily, since I’ve been co-hosting the very tournament that started it all, I still get a few rounds in.
You’ve written several books about your love for animals, and Childhelp uses animal-assisted therapy to make breakthroughs every day. Can you tell us more about how Childhelp uses animals to heal the hearts of children?
All of us have an innate need for unconditional love. For an abused child, that love is essential to helping them rebuild trust and self-esteem. Interacting with animals is safe, comforting, and can be one of the first steps toward healing. By stroking an animal’s fur gently and caringly, children start to create secure connections and learn how to care for themselves and others. It’s therapeutic and regulating. As adults, we feel a similar sensation when we cuddle with our pets. For a child healing from trauma, a therapy dog is often the first one to hear their stories and to make them smile. Since animal therapy is scheduled into their daily routine, children at Childhelp can count on that unconditional love on a regular basis.
Before there was documented proof of animal therapy being of such value, the Childhelp founders insisted on using it in their programs. On Childhelp’s 60th anniversary, how has their vision shaped the modern child welfare system?
Childhelp founders Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson have always been pioneers. They run the organization on a single mantra: All Who Enter Here Will Find Love. This phrase is written above every door at every facility, welcoming children and guests with open arms. This vision applies to the single, scared child all the way up to the nation’s children as a whole. It’s why Childhelp has worked hard to change laws across the country to give children access to lifesaving resources through prevention education, crisis intervention, and treatment. Every year, Childhelp representatives and celebrity ambassadors storm Capitol Hill on Childhelp National Day of Hope in April to update legislators on child welfare best practices. Last year, Childhelp received a federal grant to launch text and online chat through the Childhelp National Child Abuse hotline in an effort to reach even more youth in need.
Childhelp has served more than 10 and a half million children to date, and this number keeps on growing thanks to the innovative, caring hearts of Sara and Yvonne. They’ve never waited to take action for the love of a child. They’ve always done what worked, like putting recover-ing children together with animals, and let the research prove them right along the way.
Do you have a favorite story about a Childhelp child and animal?
There was an abused cow who found a home at a Childhelp residential treatment village. The cow was clearly disfigured from cruelty but the children connected with the poor animal’s scars because they had scars of their own. That cow would meet the school bus each day children rides across the fields to their cottages. The way children and animals heal each other might be one of the most beautiful aspects of this mission.
You travel around the country emceeing Childhelp events. Can you tell us about some of the fundraisers you host and why they are so important?
I co-host the Childhelp Celebrity Golf invitational each year with the sensational Cheryl Ladd, join the Founders in Washington DC to support their legislative work, emcee galas, rally donors during auctions, and do everything in my power to raise resources for these children. Animal therapy is just one of the specialized kinds of care exclusively funded by the organization. We’re never going to let Childhelp lose its ranch, equine work, four-legged counselors, and all the critters that bring the kids joy. Whether you join me for a few rounds of golf or feel moved to visit childhelp.org and donate to this one-of-a-kind organization, you will truly have a chance to change a life. If you love children and you love animals, this is truly the best of both worlds.
As a father of a young child, how has that influenced your feelings about child abuse in America?
My heart was deeply connected to this mission before William was born. My wife, Lisa, and I saw the great work Childhelp was doing across the country and we witnessed children once silenced by abuse making amazing breakthroughs, finding their voices, and even singing! As a bit of a song-and-dance-man myself, watching the ways the arts inspired these young survivors gave me the sense that anything was possible. If you choose to have a child a little later in life, you have already seen what is bad about the world. The challenges can seem daunting and sometimes you know too much to feel idealistic. Working with Childhelp I saw the very worst of what the world can do to young people, but I also saw the very best of humanity coming together to solve the problem. I decided good would always triumph over evil because the purity in a child’s heart is the greatest power of all. I feel hopeful for the futures of these children, the children of America and of my own son. William is already part of our family’s philanthropic journey and the children (and animals!) he meets along the way will be part of his heart forever.
While Childhelp has transformed the lives of countless children, their work has just begun. Every year millions of children in the United States suffer from abuse and neglect. This hidden epidemic not only robs survivors of their childhood, but also has heartbreaking long-term consequences. If you see any signs of abuse in someone you know, call or text 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for help.
Support Childhelp’s life-changing work, visit www.childhelp.org and donate today.