The program doesn’t necessarily take the oft-repeated “don’t take candy from strangers” approach.
Johnny Gosch was a 12-year-old paperboy in Iowa when he disappeared in 1982. His face — the word “MISSING” tattooed on the white space above it — was one of the first to appear on milk cartons in the 1980s.
Gosch remains missing to this day, but the memories of his father handing out pictures of his only son still haunt Brenda Zofrea. The elder Gosch was one of Zofrea’s co-workers and his heartache inspired her to create “LET’S B SAFE,” a program focused on preventing childhood sexual abuse and abduction.
“Even with all the media awareness on these issues, it’s such a delicate subject that parents don’t know where to start,” said Zofrea, who has two grown sons of her own. “How do you suddenly bring this up to your kids?”
Zofrea decided to deliver the message in book form. She wrote a rhyming book to help little kids identify the signs of strange behavior and teach them how to stay safe from predators. Since creating the program in the early 2000s, Zofrea has taken it to classrooms throughout her native New Jersey and most recently, Sarasota-Manatee.
Her program relies on community members who sponsor classrooms so that every child can get their own book, and trained volunteers who go into elementary classrooms to read the book to kids. Each child then receives their own copy of the book and the program’s trademark, a plush Be Safe Bee.
A reading teacher by training, Zofrea couldn’t help but turn the program into an opportunity to encourage literacy. The book incorporates 70 percent of the most common sight words in the English language, she says. The text doesn’t necessarily take the oft-repeated “don’t take candy from strangers” approach.
“It’s so important to get away from the ‘stranger danger’ way of teaching kids, because we know that when it comes to sexual abuse, a majority of those cases don’t happen at the hands of strangers, but at the hands of someone the child knows,” notes Zofrea.
One in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, according to estimates by the organization Darkness to Light. In more than half of those cases, the perpetrator is someone well known to the victim. Those numbers only account for victims who came forward; childhood sexual abuse is a widely underreported crime according to the organization.
That’s one thing Zofrea is trying to change by empowering kids to come forward.
The bumblebee helped. The bee is not only a character that helps guide children as they read the safety rhymes, it also provides a tool to help children disclose abuse.
Parents have shared with Zofrea stories of kids who prefaced accusations of sexual abuse with: “Mommy, daddy, the bee told me to tell you...”
Zofrea has many other stories.
Like the time she delivered the program to groups of female inmates at the Sarasota County jail. She encouraged the ladies to read the book to their children over the phone and during weekly visits.
For at least one inmate, it was a lifesaver. She learned to identify the signs of strange behavior and when her young daughter shared the circumstances of her seemingly innocent visits to a neighbor’s house, the mother detected something was wrong. Zofrea and a sheriff’s deputy helped her piece it together and they found the neighbor on a child sex offender list.
Zofrea realized early on that when it comes to safety, you can’t take for granted that people have the knowledge they need. Growing up, the only tips her own mother gave her were “no hitchhiking” and “no candy from strangers.”
So when Zofrea found herself teaching struggling high school readers at Horizons Academy in Bradenton, she created an opportunity for her students to learn the rules and help others.
“I wanted to create a community service opportunity that would allow them to pick up this knowledge at the same time,” Zofrea said.
Many of her high schoolers had never done community service before. Getting the teenagers to join paid off. Last year, Let’s B Safe won the top prize in a Florida Department of Education contest for projects that combined literacy and community service.
Zofrea says that although her program is small, it’s got legs. A teenager in Texas was awarded the “Gold Scout Gold Award” for raising money to bring the program to mothers and children living in a shelter in her hometown. Another teenager got the “Anne Frank Humanitarian Award” after implementing it in his school.
While more than 10,000 children in Manatee County schools have already received the program, Zofrea’s goal is to work with community members and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County LET’S B SAFE Fund to help find sponsors so that the program can be provided free to more children ... books and bees for all.
“As depressing as it can be, when you see the stats on what’s happening to children and you know there’s a lot you can do to prevent it,” she says, “it’s very rewarding to do this kind of work.”