Most children thankfully have happy childhoods as they innocently learn the ways of the world. As kids, their only real worries tend to be things like figuring out what channel their favorite cartoons are on. For Keith Edmonds of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, things were never quite so easy.
Edmonds’ childhood was rough. At just 1 year old, he was abused by his mother’s boyfriend that left him with lasting scars.
One night, his mother’s boyfriend grew upset with the baby’s crying and held his face to an electric heater. Half of Edmonds’ face was burned leaving him scarred and deformed.
“I spent a month in the hospital, with no one knowing if I was going to live or die,” Edmonds told People.
He was taken into care temporarily. His abuser was tried and ordered to serve 10 years in jail for his crime.
As bad as the scars were, there were also quite a few marks left emotionally on Edmonds.
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After seeking treatment, Edmonds spent the next 18 years continuing further treatment at a burn institute trying to find ways to make the scars less dominating and to reconstruct his nostril. Time passed and he became an adult, but as a result of the emotional trauma and bullying he experienced as a child he fell down a path of substance abuse, often having binge-drinking sessions.
“There are people who wear their scars all on the inside and you pass them every day,” Edmonds, who is now 40, shared with People. “I just happen to wear my scars on the inside and the outside.”
One day, however, on his 35th birthday, he decided he’d had enough and was ready to make a change.
“I wanted to be a better person,” he said. It was a long path to get to that point, but he was determined to quit drinking and do something positive with his life.
Edmonds wanted to do something that would allow other abuse victims’ voices to be heard, so he created an outlet where abuse survivors could do just that.
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Edmonds started a not-for-profit organization, the Keith Edmonds Foundation, which serves to help other victims of abuse and children in foster care. Within the organization, children and teens are offered programs that allow them an outlet to express themselves and find the confidence to overcome what’s happened to them.
“Backpacks of Love” and “Camp Confidence” are two such programs that are designated to help people who went through similar abuse to Edmonds.
In the backpack program, the foundation offers children going into foster care a backpack filled with necessities, such as a blanket, nightlight, and book.
“It gets them through the first few days,” Elaine Spence, a volunteer at the organization, told People. “I had one foster parent say it was an ice breaker to start a conversation about what was in the bag. It serves several purposes. It lets the child know someone cares and that they aren’t going into a situation with nothing.”
Spence started volunteering at the foundation after hearing Edmonds deliver a powerful speech at a local club event.
For Edmonds, the organization has been nothing short of life changing. It is his continuing desire to support victims that drives him forward every day.
Edmonds set up Camp Confidence, a summer day camp at Cumberland University, to empower abused children through mentoring provided by adult abuse survivors, as well as space where they can put their troubles behind them for a while and just be a kid. To Edmonds it’s more than just a one-time boost.
“We can’t just come into their lives for the camp and then just leave,” Edmonds says. “We walk alongside them to assist them in whatever they need. We are looking for a lasting impact, not just a one-time experience.”
While it might seem like a terrible burden, Edmonds obvious scars actually give him an advantage with the kids that come through his programs.
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They give the kids confidence that he knows what he’s talking about, and they happily open up to him about their own troubles.
“They relate to him because he wears the scars of his abuse every day of his life and he doesn’t shoot them full of hot air. They immediately trust him,” Rick Miller, principal of MAP Academy for at-risk high schoolers in Lebanon, Tennessee, told People.
“He’s a natural with these kids whose lives are all about survival. Seeing them open up to him is something special because these kids are hard core.”
Ultimately, Edmonds wants the children to find forgiveness for their abuser, just like he did, and in doing so find freedom.