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Abuse survivor Annie Warshaw a pioneer in better, bolder future for girls

Annie Warshaw spent a recent Thursday firming up a mid-March panel at a Chicago elementary wchool, where she has arranged for women excelling in their fields to share stories and field questions for a group of youngsters.

“When I asked the moderator how she was feeling, she said, ‘Relaxed. I’ve been taking action for half of my life,’ ” Warshaw told me. “She is in second grade. It’s going to be a hoot.”

Warshaw is the 29-year-old CEO and co-founder of Mission Propelle, a program that offers weekly yoga, reading and mentoring sessions at elementary schools to encourage girls to find their voices early and use them all their lives. My daughter has taken the classes at her school.

Warshaw and her team also introduce girls to leadership examples outside of school. Fifteen students recently spent the day at Ernst & Young, shadowing accountants, sales reps and executives. Another group of girls is partnering with SheBeast improv group to write skits and perform them for their classmates.

Warshaw will accept the group’s pioneer award at the Chicago Foundation for Women’s Impact Awards. The nonprofit CFW invited me to sit on the awards selection committee this year, which means I got to read the nominees’ bios, each one as inspiring as the next. Warshaw was nominated by her friend and business partner Jill Carey. The two met in 2010 when they were placed at the same school through Teach for America.

“When Annie works with kids, it’s just magical,” Carey told me. “She has so much energy and vibrancy, and the girls feed off of it. She knows every girl’s name and what they want to be when they grow up and what problems they want to solve and what obstacles they’re facing. She wants to empower young girls, so they don’t have to feel voiceless and small.”

Warshaw knows how it feels to be voiceless. She was sexually abused by her father beginning when she was 4 years old. The abuse continued until she was 10.

In 2009, a former baby sitter told Warshaw’s family that she had also been sexually abused by Louis Warshaw, Annie’s father. When she learned he was a threat to others, Warshaw decided to report her father to the police. (In Florida, where Warshaw was raised, there is no statute of limitations to prosecute sexual abuse if it occurred prior to a victim’s 16th birthday.) Warshaw’s parents were divorced by then, and Warshaw said her mom drove her to the police station to file the report.

“I always wanted to talk about this bad thing that happened to me,” Warshaw said. “But it wasn’t until I got to college and got the vocabulary to talk about it that I could really process it.”

According to Seminole County court documents, Warshaw’s father admitted during a digitally recorded phone call monitored by police that he repeatedly abused numerous girls. A warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of sexual assault and battery of a victim under 12 years old.

“He felt bad,” Warshaw told me. “He was abused as a child, and he struggled with that. But he still had a choice. He said to me, ‘Annie, I had no choice.’ Literally the last thing I said to him was, ‘You had a choice, and you chose to harm me and other people.’ ”

Before police could arrest him, Warshaw’s father checked himself into a hotel room in Palm Coast, Fla., and committed suicide. A Flagler County Sheriff’s Office report lists his cause of death as suicide by polydrug toxicity.

“It sounds like that’s where the story ends, but it’s not,” Warshaw told me. “Because then I had to figure out how to deal with it all.”

She wants to teach girls to be one another’s allies. “I want girls going around the playground sticking up for each other,” she said. “Can you imagine? ‘You look like you’re struggling. What do you want to do about it? Let’s problem-solve.’ ”

She plans to run for the local school council. Eventually, she wants to run for a higher office.

“I’ll go where I feel like it impacts women the most,” she said.

“Annie’s story is a story of redemption,” Carey said. “She took a situation she dealt with as a child to help other young girls learn to say, ‘My voice matters, and I deserve to be treated with respect.’ ”