I live in Orange Park, Fla., a small bedroom community where the most exciting thing this time of year is the annual county fair and the fall festival held in the town square.
But this year Orange Park has been utterly shaken by the abduction and murder of 7-year-old Somer Thompson.
When I first learned that Somer was missing, I believed that she would be found quickly, as other community children had been. I went to sleep that night praying and believing that when I turned on my television the next day the news would report that she was safely home.
Then came the flurry of missing child flyers and news trucks from every TV station. Endless news reports. A broken mother crying and a community banded together, determined to reclaim our own from the clutches of the evil unknown.
When a child is missing, there is no thought of race, political affiliation or religion. Everyone worried, searched and prayed.
It was awesomely shocking to find that she was not safely home by morning, and each dragging hour brought more of that sinking feeling that all was not well. I, along with my community, clung to the hope that she could be found — maybe scared or even hurt — but alive.
Our town was devastated when we learned that she was gone from this life forever. Somers small body was found two days later in a south Georgia garbage dump, 48 miles away from her home.
Living in the community where such a horrific event happens has been eye opening. We buy into a community for many reasons, not the least of which is our belief that we will be safe. When a crime of this nature happens, we realize that the monster can be under our bed.
These crimes against children seem to be happening more frequently. And not just in other places, to other people.
The suddenness and the awfulness of this crime have, I believe, forever changed my community and me.
When a child around the corner is missing, you want to do something. I wanted to search for her. I wanted to find her. My mind searched for answers. Was she in my subdivision? Was she taken by someone I know? Was she lost in the woods nearby? Who could possibly come into my town to snatch and violate a child?
I raised my children in this town. They, along with their friends, ran from house to house, sharing swimming pools and backyard swings. But sadly, we are “not living in Kansas anymore.” Now, when I see children playing in their own yards, I want to warn the parents to beware.
When a child is taken from your community you feel, in some ways, that you have failed. That you allowed someone to snatch away a child who you should have been able to protect. You feel a sense of shame that it happened here. I now watch the children in my neighborhood with a new protectiveness.
I will start opening the blinds in my home office while I work to notice the children who come and go to school each day. I will be the eye who watches for the car that cruises the neighborhood or slows near a child at play. I have a quiet, new determination that no child will go missing under my watch.
It’s horrifying and sad to realize that someone evil can take a living, breathing, innocent child and snuff out her life. And when he does, he also forever kills the innocence of the community.