Maryland's own Sugar Ray Leonard is perhaps best known as a baby-faced Olympic gold medalist and champion prize fighter with a winning smile.
Yet for decades, the world-renowned boxer suppressed a devastating secret: Leonard had been sexually abused as a teen.
"I didn't scream. I didn't look at him," the athlete writes of one particular incident involving a male coach and revealed in his autobiography, "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring."
The fighter recounts: "I just opened the door and ran."
Leonard, now 57, has become a national advocate fighting for children who have suffered abuse. Having grown up in Prince George's County, he'll return to the region as a celebrity guest when the Baltimore Child Abuse Center hosts its inaugural Be a Hero fundraiser Thursday at the American Visionary Art Museum at the Inner Harbor.
Founded in 1987, the nonprofit center serves victims of child abuse in the city — dealing with more than 1,000 cases annually. Accredited by the National Children's Alliance, it's part of a network of some 800 child advocacy sites nationwide. The Justice Department notes that approximately 293,000 young people used such facilities in 2013 alone.
A recent report from the Crimes Against Children Research Center indicates that one in four girls and one in 20 boys in the United States, experience sexual abuse or assault by age 17.
"Child sexual abuse is pervasive. It's an issue that affects the entire community," said Baltimore Child Abuse Center executive director Adam Rosenberg, a former city state's attorney who once prosecuted sex offense cases. "When a child cries out, we're here to help."
With nearly two dozen health experts, social workers, forensic specialists and other personnel, the team provides comprehensive interviews, medical treatment and crisis counseling services to youngsters and their families and caregivers.
Rosenberg, who has led the organization since 2008, explained its original mission stemmed from growing awareness among advocates that sexually abused children not only suffered from its myriad effects, but also were often re-traumatized by the lengthy, typically repetitive, investigative process intended to assist them.
"We have a coordinated, stream-lined response that results in a timely, child-sensitive investigation of sexual abuse," he said. "We're on call 24 hours a day."
The Be a Hero event aims to raise money for the center's $1.8 million budget, while also honoring individuals in the local community who have demonstrated a commitment to protecting children from sexual abuse. The Baltimore Child Abuse Center relies primarily on private and government funding.
At the Be a Hero event, honorees include Neil Meltzer, CEO of LifeBridge Health; philanthropist Ellen Wasserman; and Angelique Redmond, a businesswoman and activist.
The evening's honorary co-chairs are Debbie Phelps, educator and mother of Olympian Michael Phelps, and Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein.
Meltzer and Wasserman are being jointly recognized for efforts that resulted in a strategic partnership between the center, and the Herman and Walter Samuelson Children's Hospital at Sinai, part of the LifeBridge system.
Thanks to Meltzer's vision and a multiyear financial gift from Wasserman, the nonprofit has been able to make its medical director — a pediatrician with specialized expertise in child sex abuse — a member of the children's hospital faculty.
Meltzer says the arrangement saves the operation significant expense, and augments its ability to connect children with the best care possible.
"Unfortunately, there's a need for these services," said the CEO, who noted he was "stunned" to learn the center was acknowledging him. "It's a great organization. I'm not one to grab the spotlight, but this means a lot to me."
Redmond was equally surprised.
"I thought, 'Me'?" said the owner of Kinkx Studio, a hair braiding salon in the city's Belair-Hamilton neighborhood that caters to a clientele 14 and younger.
Over the past year, center officials say Redmond has been integral to the success of its Enough Abuse campaign, an effort to heighten awareness of and community discussions relating to the issue of child sexual abuse.
She opens her shop for meetings, hosts discussions and rallies, and is a vocal advocate for inner city youth.
"The well being of children is very important to me," said the wife and mother of three.
Organizers said the gala is sold out.
While that makes Rosenberg happy, he's unabashed about the center's ongoing fiscal needs as it works with children and seeks to train people in the greater community to learn what they can do to help prevent child abuse.
"We're still trying to raise awareness," he said. "We want to build the next generation of child protection advocates."
For more information about the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, visit bcaci.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now