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Meet Illinois' 'Woman of the Year'

November 12, 2012|By Ryan Smith, @RyanSmithWriter | For RedEye

Never mind the red carpet.

Though she'll be sharing the stage with the likes of A-list celebrities including actress Selena Gomez and "Girls" creator Lena Dunham, Erin Merryn isn't concerned about increasing her Q score.

The Schaumburg resident is instead relishing her selection as one of Glamour magazine's Women of the Year, along with Gomez, Dunham, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a group of female Olympians and others. Along with her honor comes the chance to speak at Monday night's swanky awards ceremony at New York City's Carnegie Hall about her mission to educate children about sexual abuse.

"I never did this for the recognition," said Merryn, 27. "I'm just excited for this platform and want to make some important connections and urge everyone to do their part for this cause. I'll urge them not to forget that there are lots of kids going to bed at night that hold the same secrets I had as a child because no one is educating them about this."

Merryn was chosen for the honor because of her tireless work to pass legislation named after her, "Erin's Law," which directs schools to teach sex abuse prevention for grade-school-age children. The law has been passed in four states--Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Maine--and is pending in eight others.

"Most people have not heard of her," said Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive in a segment on the "Today" show last week, "but she's a great role model and such a positive example."

Had Erin's Law been in effect when she was a girl, Merryn said she might have been encouraged to speak out about her own sexual abuse, which occurred from ages 6 to 8 and again from 11 to 13--both by people she knew: a neighbor who baby-sat her and an older cousin.

She kept the abuse a secret until later in high school when she published her diaries for a book called "Stolen Innocence."

But it was not until after she wrote her second book that she decided to start a campaign asking lawmakers in Illinois to pass a bill requiring education of sex abuse in schools.

"Stranger danger," as Merryn calls it, the idea that children should beware of those they don't know is well-ingrained by parents and teachers. But the problem is only 7 percent of children are victimized by strangers, according to Merryn. It's those that parents trust--a coach, babysitter or family member that are perpetrators of abuse 93 percent of the time.

"In school they taught us about avoiding bullying, they taught us fire drills and tornado drills, but I've never run out of a burning building in my life or had to duck and cover from a tornado. I knew eight ways to say no to drugs because of the DARE program, but nothing about abuse," Merryn said.

In April 2010, Merryn gave up her full-time job as a youth and family counselor in Buffalo Grove and began writing politicians and speaking to legislators. Those efforts finally paid off when Gov. Pat Quinn signed Erin's Law in February 2011. From there she decided that her mission shouldn't stop at Illinois' borders.

Erin's Law has continued to spread to a handful of other states, but Merryn thinks that the exposure of the Glamour award has the potential to earn it consideration as a federal mandate.

Her eventual goal: a trip to the White House and a meeting with President Obama.

"I have my doubters, but I always say 'Watch me get this done,' Merryn said. "I am that determined, and I won't stop no matter what. If I am testifying when I'm 80 years old, I will do that to get this passed everywhere."

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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