Wearing a T-shirt and running shorts — her blond hair neatly tucked under a ball cap — Lauren Book looked more like a college student than an energetic activist.
But on this day, she was the professor, not the student. She came to Alpha House of Tampa on Wednesday to teach lessons about survival, healing and resilience. She greeted staffers and residents with smiles and hugs at the facility, which helps young mothers and pregnant women in crisis.
She recognized the clients she met last year when she first walked across the state to raise awareness of sexual assault.
Now on her second statewide walk, Book, 26, is accompanied by a support staff, cars and a tour bus as she logs more than 1,000 miles from Key West to Tallahassee on her Walk In My Shoes tour.
But she also brought a powerful story as she made her way from Alpha House to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
For six years, Book suffered silently through sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her nanny. Finally, she found the will to reveal that pain to her family — an act reflected in the title of her memoir, It's OK to Tell.
But that was just the beginning. Difficult therapy followed as she battled anorexia, self-mutilation and hair loss. How did she put herself on the path to healing? How can others do the same?
"Each of us has a spark within us," said Book, a Broward County resident. "It's the spirit you're given when you're born. It's the spirit that can carry you through. Healing is not a destination. It's a journey. It's a process."
As she continues one process, she focuses on another: creating greater legal protections for the victims of abuse. The daughter of lobbyist Ron Book, she travels the state to generate support for new legislation.
Having already helped several bills become law, Book's latest focus is a bill of rights for sexual abuse victims.
The Walk in Their Shoes Act (learn more at www.laurenskids.org) has a number of provisions, including relocation assistance for victims of sexual crimes, and adding Internet safety to health education curriculum for public schools.
It also calls for enhancing the Rape Crisis Program Trust Fund, which provides money for agencies such as the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and the Broward County Sexual Assault Treatment Center that first treated Book.
"It's about taking caterpillars and making them into butterflies," Book said. "The things (sexual assault treatment centers) do are remarkable. We need to fund them appropriately."
Book said she's determined to call legislators to the table, noting that one facility in the state recently struggled to provide toilet paper to clients.
Closer to home, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay in the last 40 years has served 12,000 women who have been sexually assaulted. The center's chief executive officer, David Braughton, said research indicates only a third of the women who have been victimized step forward.
Plus, the funding needs to go beyond the initial forensic exam and include treatment for that journey of healing.
I don't know how someone could hear Book's story and not be moved. I don't know how some legislator can look her in the eye and say, "You have our support," and not mean it.
But it can happen — if they don't stop and imagine what it's like to walk in her shoes.
That's all I'm saying.