Mandee Heinl describes chairing the Baltimore Child Abuse Center’s sixth annual “Be A Hero Gala,” featuring Olympic gold medalist gymnast Aly Raisman, as nothing less than transformational.

“I had a really hard childhood and experienced abuse,” said Heinl, 28, who lives in Baltimore County. “While chairing this event has been difficult and triggering, it has helped me channel my energy into something good and given me a platform to make a point to people that this is not a problem that impacts one demographic or another.

“This impacts everyone.”

More than 700 people attended the gala on May 10 at the Hippodrome Theatre. The gala honors the work of individuals who are doing their part to fight child abuse in Baltimore and beyond.

According to BCAC, one in four girls and one in six boys are physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Raisman, 24, made international headlines in 2017 when she spoke out against former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar.

Aly Raisman:
“I don’t know if you ever truly heal, but for me therapy helps a lot as well as self-care. I love gardening, meditating and being outside.” (Photo Provided)

“This is something that is important to talk about,” Raisman told the Hippodrome audience. “When I was younger and being abused, I didn’t realize it was sexual abuse. I was always warned about ‘stranger danger,’ but it’s not always a creepy man who is the abuser. It can really be anyone, and we need to change the dialogue. It didn’t occur to me at the time that someone I trusted could be hurting me.”

Raisman, the second most decorated American gymnast of all time, emphasized that she does not want the designation of being an abuse survivor to be a defining characteristic for her life.

“This is bigger than myself, which is why I try not to talk too much about my own story,” she said. “I don’t know if you ever truly heal, but for me therapy helps a lot as well as self-care. I love gardening, meditating and being outside.” 

Since speaking out against Nassar — who was convicted of sexual assault and child pornography charges – Raisman has traveled across the country to advocate for systemic changes within the gymnastics community and to speak out against sexual abuse.

“If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right,” she said. “It’s alright to ask questions. The lack of education surrounding sexual abuse is horrifying and perpetuates the problem. We live in a world where people judge women for what they wear, but we should judge abusers for not getting consent.”

Raisman praised BCAC and its counterparts around the nation for their determination in combatting child abuse.

“The work BCAC does can be draining and exhausting,” she said. “It can also be a little depressing when you realize how many people are going through such horrible things. But there are also amazing moments when you see the transformation of a survivor that is thriving and going on to do amazing things”

Mandee Heinl said BCAC’s mission hits close to home for her.

“I knew the things that happened in my home were wrong, but I never identified my childhood as abusive until last year,” said Heinl, who serves as regional director for a U.S senator. “For me, the system failed. I had Child Protective Services in my home a few times. There needed to be a better way, and with BCAC you are seeing best practices as well as legislation to change practices.”

Unlike other survivors of childhood abuse, Heinl has managed to build a life of love, happiness and success. Today, she and her husband are the parents of two young children. “I have the most supportive and understanding husband, who is my hero,” she said.

The message of the “Be A Hero Gala” — which raised more than $300,000 for BCAC’s services — was one of hope and rejuvenation as the Hippodrome was transformed into a space brimming with butterflies. The butterfly is a symbol of BCAC.

“Every kid who comes through BCAC decorates a butterfly,” said Adam Rosenberg, the nonprofit’s executive director. “The butterfly is transformational and also makes our space a place where kids are happy.”

Founded more than 30 years ago, BCAC is a one-stop shop for children who have suffered child sexual abuse, trauma and other Adverse Childhood Experiences. The staff — which includes medical personnel, mental health experts and social workers — work collaboratively on child abuse cases.

“Child abuse is bigger than a crime and justice issue,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a real public epidemic because victims of abuse can have a lifetime of health problems.”

BCAC, which joined LifeBridge Health earlier this year, trains thousands of individuals across the country on how to keep children safe. In addition, the organization works with state lawmakers to advocate for victims of abuse.

“Kids who go through child trauma or sexual abuse can be set up for poor outcomes later in life, but it’s not a death sentence,” said Rosenberg. “It’s a marker for us to know we have to do something.”

Said Heinl: “I had many other people in my life that helped me break the cycle of abuse, but for many kids all they have is BCAC. That is what helps them identify situations aren’t right. I found protection elsewhere, but many kids walk in here and find that same kind of protection. That is why I care so much.”

For information about the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, visitbcaci.orgorg.