Trauma as a result of sexual abuse when she was 11 silenced the voice of Autumn Bolden-Smith. Now 14, she's singing again and sharing a message, urging child sex victims to tell someone.
Autumn was a student at Orange Grove Elementary in Gulfport when her mother's boyfriend sexually assaulted her in 2012. She told her mother. Autumn says that was the start of finding freedom. Her abuser was sent to prison for 30 years.
Today, she's a Christian singer who uses her voice, through song and personal experience, to encourage others. She sees herself as "a world changer" and said she wants to help young victims of sexual abuse.
"There are other children who are going through it now or teenagers who went through it and they need to get it off their chest," Autumn said.
Her advice to them is this: "Tell somebody. Tell anybody. Go to church. Pray 24-7."
Autumn sang and spoke briefly of her experience Friday at a National Crime Victims' Rights Week program at First Baptist Church of Gulfport.
Autumn told the Sun Herald how the abuse changed her, making her a prisoner in her own mind. She also shared how she began to accept what had happened and how it has shaped who she has become and who she wants to be. She also said she has forgiven her abuser.
Abuse changed her
Autumn is poised and confident. She also is outspoken in her belief in God and the power of prayer.
But that wasn't who she had become after she was abused in 2012.
Autumn had been an active Christian singer. She had traveled for performances, singing at state fairs, in church and elsewhere.
Then she began to isolate herself from others. She began having problems in school. She quit singing. She quit going to church.
"I didn't understand what was going on or how I was going to get through it," she said.
"I didn't want to be Autumn any more."
"It took my confidence away. I didn't really want to talk to people or be around people. And I didn't want to stand up in front of anyone and sing."
A prayer team at her church, Cedar Lake Christian Assembly in Biloxi, kept praying for her.
Autumn said she began to question many things, including who she was.
She also tried to take her own life.
Her therapist, who also attends Cedar Lake, helped her sort out her emotions so she could heal, and prayed with her, Autumn said.
"If it wasn't for that," she said, "I probably wouldn't be the person I am today."
Justice is freedom
Autumn was attending D'Iberville High in January 2014 when her abuser went on trial. She was afraid to look at him and didn't want to speak in court.
"Then I realized he had to know how it affected me," she said.
A Harrison County jury found Tremayne Whittle guilty of sexual battery. He was sentenced to 30 years with no early release.
Autumn said she was relieved when the verdict was read and the sentence imposed.
"I felt like I was safe," she said. "It felt like freedom."
Her family has recently moved to Spanish Fort, Ala., but they come back to Cedar Lake for church.
She's already looking toward her future.
"I want to be a criminal prosecutor or attorney or a children's therapist," she said. "I want to pursue a singing career, but being a lawyer comes first."
Crime victim program
District Attorney Joel Smith said Autumn's message of empowerment was encouraging, even for himself.
The family of Xavier "Xa" Monroe lit a candle for all crime victims during the program on Friday.
Monroe, 25 and a father, was shot to death July 7, 2013, in Gulfport. He was outside the Eclipse Lounge when someone fired shots into the crowd.
His family "showed their love and support for him through their resolve at every step of the process," ADA Chris Carter said.
"It is their resolve that truly exemplifies what Crime Victims' Week and this candlelight ceremony are all about."
A similar ceremony was held in Jackson County earlier this week.
Harrison County Sheriff's Sgt. Joe Sturm was presented the Crime Victim's Law Enforcement Award.
Karla Tye, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Centers of Mississippi, was presented the Crime Victim's Community Service Award.