BLOOMINGDALE — There's something about a library that just feels safe.
It's quiet, peaceful, a haven for learning — a place people go to escape the bustling and frightening outside world.
It's one reason the brutal 2008 rape of a teenage girl outside the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library was so shocking. Every rape is a horrific crime, but this one seemed especially difficult to comprehend.
Perhaps that's why this weekend, two years later, folks are expected to show up in droves to a fundraiser for the now 20-year-old victim.
On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Ruskin SouthShore Chamber of Commerce and several Tampa Electric Co. employees will host a barbecue and music fest at E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin to raise money to buy the victim a $25,000 hyperbaric chamber, which is a sealed, high-pressure oxygen chamber used in physical therapy.
The victim, whom the Times has not identified due to the nature of the crime, is still recovering from injuries she received during the attack that left her unable to walk, talk or see.
Admission, which includes food, costs $8 per person plus $2 per car that enters the county park. Kids younger than 12 get in free.
On the night of April 24, 2008, the victim, then an East Bay High School senior with a scholarship to the University of Florida, went to the library to return some books after she left work at the Brandon mall. She was on the phone with a friend as she parked about 3 feet from the library's night drop boxes.
She told the friend there was a weird-looking man sitting on the bench near the depository. Then she screamed, and the phone went dead.
Family and friends rushed to the scene to find blood on the ground and the girl's empty car. Deputies found her unconscious about 200 feet from the library.
Her forehead and nose were fractured, and she suffered multiple strokes from being choked. She spent six months hospitalized before returning home.
A neuro-ophthalmologist examined the girl and determined that there was no optical damage, according to Times archives. She has about 10 percent of her vision, but with time and good fortune, she may one day see again.
A year after the attack, she still depended on a feeding tube and wheelchair. But she was able to swallow liquids during therapy and could make out shadows.
Kendrick Morris, then 16 years old, was charged as an adult with the rape and another of a 61-year-old woman at a day care near his Clair-Mel home the previous June.
Morris remains behind bars without bail. His trial is scheduled to start in September.
I've read and written my fair share of crime stories — stories that have kept me up at night, stories I wished were made up. But this one struck a nerve.
When it happened, I was still a journalism student at the University of Florida, preparing for a Times internship that fall.
I read those first Bloomingdale rape stories in horrified disbelief. After thinking, "How could this happen?" I remember thinking, "How could this happen at the library?"
Growing up, my sister and I both loved to read, and my mom often took us to the John F. Germany branch in downtown Tampa to browse for hours.
As insatiably curious little girls, it was our little sanctuary.
Sometimes there would be a community puppet show or a group reading. Most times we would just spread out on the floor and flip through book after book.
During high school, I spent plenty of evenings holed up at one of the study desks, finishing English papers or reviewing biology.
When I was finished, I waited outside for my mom to pick me up. There was a yellow "Safe Place" logo stuck to the window.
It was where I voted for the first time after turning 18 and where I spent many late nights and early mornings cramming for exams in college.
I've never felt scared there.
I wonder if the Bloomingdale victim felt the same sense of security before that night.
Nothing can change what happened. No court verdict could ever truly bring justice, and no amount of money could ever offer the victim the healing she deserves.
But even years later, we can try.
We can gather together on Saturday along a pretty Hillsborough County shoreline and think of things that should be safe — like little girls and libraries.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.