Child Abuse Survivor, 40, Finds Forgiveness and 'Empowers' Other Abused Kids: 'It Is My Job'

"I just happen to wear my scars on the inside and the outside," Keith Edmonds tells PEOPLE

The pain Keith Edmonds has endured is written on his scarred face, giving him street cred with the abused and neglected kids he’s trying to reach.

“There are people who wear their scars all on the inside and you pass them every day,” Edmonds, 40, of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee says. “I just happen to wear my scars on the inside and the outside.”

On Nov. 18, 1978, while living in Flint, Michigan, his mother’s boyfriend got angry one night when the then-14-month-old toddler wouldn’t stop crying in his crib. He held Edmonds’ face to an electric heater, horrifically scorching 50 percent of the toddler’s face with third degree burns. His abuser was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Courtesy of Keith Edmonds

“I spent a month in the hospital, with no one knowing if I was going to live or die,” says Edmonds, who continued treatment at the Shriners Burn Institute in Cincinnati until he was 18.

Courtesy of Keith Edmonds
Courtesy of Keith Edmonds

As he grew older, Edmonds started down a troubled path fueled by substance abuse to cope with his emotional pain. But he had a moment of clarity on his 35th birthday on July 9, 2012 — while on yet another drinking binge — when he says he realized, “I wanted to be a better person.”

Through his non-profit, the Keith Edmonds Foundation, he works to help abused children and teens through speaking engagements and programs like Backpacks of Love for foster children and his Camp Confidence for child abuse victims.

Edmonds has been sharing his story, and helping empower abused children, for the past five years but officially started his non-profit foundation in 2016. Elaine Spence of Old Hickory, Tennessee, heard Edmonds speak at the local civic club and was so impressed with his story, she wanted to volunteer to help him with his new foundation.

“I can tell you this guy is the real deal,” Spence says. “He’s been through abuse, foster care and made something positive with his life.”

The foundation’s work with foster children include giving them gender and age specific backpacks filled with essential items, including a nightlight, a toy, a book and a blanket to take with them to their foster care home.

“It gets them through the first few days,” Spence says. “I had one foster parent say it was an ice breaker to start a conversation about what was in the bag. It serves several purposes. It lets the child know someone cares and that they aren’t going into a situation with nothing.”

Courtesy of Keith Edmonds

The summer day camp, Camp Confidence, was born from a need to give foster children a sense of worth through mentoring and being able to just be a kid. The mission is to empower children and allow survivors to pay it forward.

“There was a moment when an adult survivor was talking about vision boards and 10 things to make life better and talked about role models,” Edmonds says. “A little girl asked if he could be her role model. There was such a great connection there. I was so overcome, I had to leave the room.”

Edmonds believes in the power of mentorship and remaining a constant in the lives of these young people who have so little stability in their homes.

“We can’t just come into their lives for the camp and then just leave,” Edmonds says. “We walk alongside them to assist them in whatever they need. We are looking for a lasting impact, not just a one-time experience.”

Rick Miller, principal of MAP Academy for at-risk high schoolers in Lebanon, Tennessee, knows how hard it is to reach these students who have built walls to protect themselves from the world around them.

“They relate to him because he wears the scars of his abuse every day of his life and he doesn’t shoot them full of hot air. They immediately trust him,” Miller says. “He’s a natural with these kids whose lives are all about survival. Seeing them open up to him is something special because these kids are hard core.”

Miller says it breaks his heart to see so many young people in his county who choose suicide because they cannot cope with the pain in their lives.

“I love that he’s brutally honest with them, doesn’t coddle them and makes a connection that no one else can,” Miller says.

One high school girl in particular changed dramatically after talking with Edmonds and having Edmonds and his wife Kelly take her under their wing.

“She became like a new kid. I watched her smile again and saw life coming back to her,” Miller says. “She had so much going against her and we might have lost her if they hadn’t come along with they did.”

Edmonds knows that kind of pain. After being released from the hospital, he became a ward of the state of Michigan and went into foster care until his mother proved she had nothing to do with the abuse. The two were reunited and she stood by him during his long years of treatment that included skin grafts and surgeries to expand his damaged nostril to allow him to breath better.

He harbored most of his pain inside, but by the time he entered his 20s he was abusing drugs and alcohol while his life was spinning out of control.

“I became self-destructive, which brings on disruption to others in your life,” Edmonds says. “It was a long path and I felt like I was a horrible person. I was looking in the mirror and not comfortable about who I was.”

He changed his life, and decided he needed to help others change their lives as well.

“I spent my whole life trying to transition myself from a victim to a survivor,” Edmonds says. “I quit drinking for every child that has been effected by child abuse. I know that I have been blessed to be able to make the transition and it is my job to help empower and assist others in their journeys. And try my best to shorten their transition.”

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