The girl came to see her in December carrying roses and chocolates.
The girl was grown up now — a mother of two — living in the middle of Nebraska.
In another lifetime, a caseworker and a cop had showed up at her grandparents' home one winter night.
Michelle was 7 then. Her parents were alcoholics. She and her little sisters were being sexually abused by their older half-brothers.
There was physical abuse and neglect, too.
The little girl’s mom had fled to safety in Ceresco with her children after another fight with her husband.
Someone reported it to the authorities and the sisters hid in an upstairs bedroom waiting for a knock at the door.
There was crying and chaos.
The caseworker and the cop coaxed those frightened girls out and put them in an unmarked car.
Michelle remembers its color: tan.
She remembers the day of the week: Friday. She knows because “Dukes of Hazzard” was on the TV at the foster home.
She remembers the police officer's name was Ed.
She remembers the caseworker had a kind face.
And that her name was Lynn.
Thirty-five years later, that girl started following the Facebook account of a Nebraska nonprofit that listened to abused kids and helped them.
Michelle cared about things like that, so when the Child Advocacy Center showed up on Facebook as “a page you might like,” she clicked on it.
Four months passed before she made the connection. A place that helped children recover from trauma and a director named Lynn?
She clicked her mouse.
And stared at a kind face.
* * *
Lynn Ayers was that caseworker.
She would go on to start the Child Advocacy Center, where she would meet thousands of Michelles and help them deal with their trauma.
For decades, she carried a photo of three red-headed girls in her wallet. She’d take it out and look at it to remind herself how much she still had to learn in 1982.
Back then, the young caseworker answered the sex-abuse hotline for Saunders County, she transported female inmates, she worked with teenagers in trouble with the law, and child and adult victims of sex abuse.
She went out on abuse calls with an officer named Ed.
“I’ve always remembered this girl and her sisters,” Ayers said last week.
That first night at the foster home, Ayers sat in a bedroom talking to Michelle and her sisters, coaxing out details of their lives. A few days later, she drove them to a doctor in Fremont for a medical exam.
The girls were so scared. The doctor harried and impatient.
He yelled at Ayers to hold those small bodies down so he could complete his exam. He told her to make the girls stop squirming. He insisted she comply.
By the time she left, she was both angry and in tears, telling the girls she was sorry over and over. Telling herself she would never do that again.
She never took another victim back to that clinic, Ayers said last week, but she carried the trauma.
“I can’t believe that’s what we did back then.”
Now they do medical exams at the center on Garland Street in Lincoln. A comforting room with a mural of flying pigs and sheep on the ceiling, teddy bears for the kids to examine, and a doctor or nurse to answer all of their questions and an advocate to cuddle them.
“The doctors take such time and they talk them through it. We’ve never once had to hold a kid down.”
Long after she moved on to new cases, Ayers went to see those girls in their foster home, wanting to make sure they were OK. They would clamber into her lap while she held them close and told funny stories.
Their foster mom gave Ayers that photo of the three sisters and it became a touchstone, a way to remind herself of a doctor’s office in Fremont and her vow to never let that happen again.
“That was the reason I carried that picture around for all those years.”
* * *
After Michelle recognized Ayers on Facebook, the two began messaging each other privately.
They exchanged phone numbers and talked.
Michelle drove to Lincoln on a Friday and she sat in Ayers' office for more than three hours, the two of them talking about 1982 and what came after.
She brought a dozen roses and a box of chocolate.
Michelle is 43 and works as a respiratory therapist.
“I have two amazing children,” she says. “I put myself through college twice.”
She remembered her early home life as chaotic with abuse that ran through the whole family. Her parents fought when they drank. She remembers the birthday when they came home to cut her cake, then left to go party.
And then that night in 1982 when the strangers knocked on the door of her grandparents’ house.
“They put us in a car and it was so dark and we were scared. No matter how bad it is at home, you want to be with your mom and dad.”
Michelle remembered the plaid couch in Ayers' Wahoo office and Lola, her nice secretary.
She remembered the doctor’s visit that haunted Ayers, but she remembers it differently.
“I remember her trying to calm my youngest sister. I remember her saying, ‘Let’s get this done, it will be over quickly.'”
She remembers thinking: Oh, my gosh. This is a really good person.
Michelle and her sisters remained in that foster home for three years, until her dad got sober and regained custody.
Her mom died 13 years ago and Michelle stays in contact with her foster mom, who was a positive force in her life.
When she found Ayers, the Child Advocacy Center director sent her a picture of a picture. Three red-headed little girls in fancy dresses.
Michelle couldn’t believe it.
“It stole my heart,” she says. “She said it helped her make different decisions throughout her life.”
Ayers helped her, too.
“Lynn was one of the first people there through some of the horrible parts. She was one of the positive influences.”
She calmed the chaos, Michelle says. She was a buffer between the sisters and the bad stuff.
So she brought chocolate that Friday for Ayers to share with her staff. She called it a “little pick me up” for the hard work they do helping kids.
Something to bring cheer: “They say even a smile can change someone’s day.”
The flowers were for her old caseworker. A way to repay what can’t be repaid.
“My main goal was to tell her thank you,” the girl from the photo says. “Even if it took 35 years.”
* * *
Sunday afternoon, Ayers will be the keynote speaker at the Interfaith Peacemaking Coalition's annual workshop.
“From Darkness to Light: Child Sexual Assault” is this year’s theme.
The event at First United Methodist Church is free and open to the public.
Presenters will talk about body safety, resiliency, the five-step approach to protecting children, male victims of sexual assault, what to ask and what to do if a child discloses abuse to you.
Ayers will talk about a girl named Michelle.
And how her story and what happened in that doctor’s office helped her do her job better.
And now, she knows, despite the mistakes, it helped Michelle.
Because, what Michelle remembered wasn’t that day on the exam table, but the love and the hugs that came after.
Ayers will tell people that trauma is terrible, but victims can move through it, with help, with time.
That one person can make a difference. And that everyone and anyone can be that person.
A flashlight in the dark, she says.
She will say that one in 10 kids will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18. That 60 percent of them won't tell.
“It’s easy to say it will never happen to someone I know ... but it will," she says. "You can be there to take away the shame and the stigma.”