- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

ORANGE CITY, Iowa (AP) - In all the stories written about Autumn Elgersma’s tragic final days, a photo of her smiling brightly always seemed to cut through the dark details.

It’s the happy smile of a cute little 3-year-old girl, the kind of smile that can brighten a whole room.

Autumn’s smile will soon shine on other children making their way through the darkness of child abuse, neglect and other emotional conditions.

When the first patients walk into Autumn’s Center in Spencer, Iowa, on Oct. 31, the three-year anniversary of Autumn’s death, they will be greeted by a painting of the little girl from Orange City and that beautiful smile.

“Our biggest thing is we don’t want those kids’ endings to be like hers. Knowing those kids will be getting help with their hurts, hopefully their endings will be better than hers was,” said Jen Elgersma, Autumn’s mother.

A grand opening and ribbon cutting on Nov. 10 will celebrate the new facility, an outpatient behavioral and developmental health service center that will help young people from birth to age 21 suffering the effects of child abuse, substance abuse, bullying and many other conditions.

While plans for the center were in the early stages, Jen and Phil Elgersma were dealing with what had happened to the youngest of their three children.

On Oct. 29, 2013, Autumn was injured at the home of her daycare provider, Rochelle Sapp, who initially told the family that Autumn had fallen down the stairs at her Orange City home. She later told investigators she picked up the girl and threw her down against the ground because she didn’t ask for help taking off her jacket.

Autumn suffered skull fractures and brain hemorrhages and died two days later in a Sioux Falls hospital, according to the Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/2eeb76l ).

At Sapp’s sentencing on charges of involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment resulting in death and child endangerment — multiple acts, it was revealed that she had been abusing Autumn for months before her death. (Sapp was sentenced to 100 years in prison, a sentence later cut in half by a judge.)

When Autumn died, Seasons Center for Behavioral Health in Spencer was in the midst of a silent fundraising campaign to build the children’s center. When Autumn’s picture appeared in newspapers and on television after her death, it struck a chord, said Kim Scorza, CEO of Seasons Center.

“As a result of Autumn’s death, people were giving to our agency to help other kids,” Scorza said.

Scorza asked Jen Elgersma to meet with her, and over coffee Scorza told her about donors’ responses to Autumn’s death and that some had suggested naming the center after her.

“We didn’t know at the time until we met with her that donors had given more money or increased their donations once there was a name to put with child abuse,” Elgersma said. “It was a good feeling that people were thinking of (Autumn) and wanted to give donations because of her and her story.”

After a week of discussing it, Jen and Phil Elgersma were on board, and the Autumn’s Center name was announced in October 2014. The Elgersma family was involved in the renovation of an old furniture store that’s now Autumn’s Center, providing input on color schemes, carpet and other furnishings. Jen has spoken at fundraising events. She, Phil and their children, Faith and Jared, have been in parades and at other events to raise awareness for the $3 million center, which was funded through donations and grants.

“We want people to know that Autumn’s story is more than what happened to her,” Jen said. “It’s nice to be able to share more details about Autumn’s life, that last year and the last days.”

Autumn’s life can be found in the details of the center. In a lobby hangs a mobile. A butterfly flits around a tree in a piece of metal artwork. The butterfly and mobile are both purple, Autumn’s favorite color.

A short explanation of Autumn’s story accompanies her portrait. It will be illuminated around the clock, to “shine a light on child abuse,” Scorza said.

Jen and Phil Elgersma both hope that Autumn’s Center will be a place of healing, that Autumn’s presence will continue to put a name, a face to serious issues such as child abuse and inspire others to take action.

“I think any parent, when they lose a child, their greatest fear is that their child will be forgotten,” Jen said. “Everyone who walks into the center will see her picture and a short biography of her life, so she’ll be remembered, and that’s a good feeling.”

Autumn’s story is hard to forget. Through her name, other children now face the possibility of a happy ending, which you’d have to imagine would make Autumn smile.


Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com

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