When Kayla Schneider revealed on her 13th birthday that she’d been molested by a family friend, her shocked and devastated mother told her that her experience, while horrifying, wouldn’t have to define her life.
She’d be able to have a bright future, her mother told her, but she’d have to fight for it.
And that’s what Kayla did: She fought for it.
She told her story to a forensic interviewer at the Lancaster County Children’s Alliance, and eventually in court.
And her testimony — along with that of three other girls — helped to secure the conviction of Michael Archacki, of Quarryville, a former police officer and firefighter, who was sentenced in December 2012 to up to 65 years in prison.
Kayla knows her fight isn’t over. But she’s finding her way. She’s found her voice. And she intends to use that voice to let others who have been sexually abused know they can overcome their trauma.
She’ll be speaking at the One with Courage Children’s Summit on Friday, April 11.
The summit is being held by the Lancaster County Children’s Alliance, a children’s advocacy center, and Lancaster General Health’s Nurse-Family Partnership.
It will aim to educate “adults on the courage that hundreds of children throughout Lancaster County have every year when they walk into the Lancaster County Children’s Alliance,” says Kari Stanley, the alliance’s program supervisor.
She says she hopes the summit raises awareness about the alliance’s work, and encourages adults to recognize and report child sexual abuse.
“It is our hope (that) by taking action — no matter how small or large the act — we make a significant difference in the life of a child, in our communities and in the movement to end child sexual abuse,” Stanley says.
Kayla also plans to take part in the Run with Courage 5K on April 6, which will raise money for the Lancaster County Children’s Alliance.
She says she wants to give back to those who helped her regain control of her life.
And she wants to offer hope to other sexual abuse survivors.
“I never want them to think they are alone,” she says.
Where the blame lies
In a recent interview at Solanco High School, where she is a sophomore, Kayla, 15, is thoughtful and remarkably poised.
Her mother, Christine Schneider, says that poise is hard-won; her daughter, she says, lost part of her childhood.
Kayla says she no longer blames herself for the pain her family endured when she revealed her abuse.
She knows the blame lies entirely with the grown man who took advantage of her and other children.
She was 12 when, in May 2011, she had to leave a softball game to play the violin in a concert. When the concert ended, she met her victorious teammates for ice cream.
A teammate and friend introduced her to her “like-Dad, Myke,” who was a father figure to Kayla’s fatherless friend.
That evening, Archacki introduced himself to Kayla’s mother.
A week later, he began texting Kayla; the texts eventually would number in the thousands.
“He offered to help me with any bullying issues at school, or issues with my parents, because he mentored other girls and was a police officer,” Kayla recalls. “He seemed to understand what I was going through. He also asked me if I believed in love at first sight.
“He said he saw me at my orchestra concert and instantly fell in love with me. Over time he acted like he was my boyfriend.”
He was three decades older than Kayla.
'He seemed everywhere'
Knowing that Kayla’s mother periodically checked her phone, he directed Kayla to delete his texts.
“When I first met Myke, he seemed really nice, friendly and helpful,” Kayla says. “He made me feel good about myself. Before I knew it, I felt like he controlled my every thought and action.”
She says she had been an overweight kid, with self-esteem issues. She says she knew it was “weird” that a grown man would tell her he had fallen instantly in love with her, but he was an adult, and she was 12.
He was calling all the shots.
One night, she was invited to a friend’s house to sleep over. The friend fought with her guardian, and called Archacki, who came to pick up the girls.
He brought them to his house, and introduced them to his girlfriend and their respective children. The kids danced and watched movies, and then went to sleep in the basement.
“Myke woke me up in the middle of the night and said he needed to talk to me,” Kayla remembers. “The rest I would like to forget.”
Archacki molested her.
“I was confused and paralyzed with fear. … I couldn’t say a word. What was happening? Was it my fault? Myke told me he loved me and what he was doing was not wrong, it was normal.”
In the weeks that followed, Archacki insinuated himself into the lives of Kayla and her family.
He and his girlfriend began attending their church; Archacki offered to help with Bible school.
“Our families became friends and hung out with each other,” even going on vacation to the beach together, Kayla says. “He seemed everywhere.”
Truth comes out
In July 2011, Archacki told Kayla’s parents that he had been accused of improperly touching a young girl. He proclaimed his innocence, and said he was sure the matter would be cleared up soon.
Shaken, Kayla’s parents asked her if Archacki had ever done anything to her. She got upset, asking how they could believe a friend had done something so awful.
Archacki had told her that what happened between them was their secret, and if she revealed it, her parents would never look at her the same way again.
She says she didn’t want to disappoint her parents.
But soon after, her parents — saying there were too many red flags — forbade her from going near Archacki.
Archacki was asked to stay away from Kayla’s 13th birthday party.
At the end of the party, Archacki’s girlfriend, who was a party guest, asked Kayla to come outside to the driveway with her. There Kayla found Archacki waiting to give her an 8-foot teddy bear.
Kayla’s parents were furious. Her mother emailed Archacki to tell him he wasn’t to have any contact with Kayla.
A few days later, on Kayla’s actual birthday, she told one of her friends what Archacki had done to her.
And then Kayla told her mother.
“My parents’ reaction was nothing like Myke told me it would be,” Kayla says. “They weren’t ashamed of me. Instead they told me they were proud of me for telling the truth, and they loved me unconditionally.”
Christine Schneider remembers running across the family’s yard, screaming, as she ran to get her mother to stay with Kayla, while she and her husband Joel spoke to the police.
“I believed her right away,” Christine says. “There was never a doubt. It was just the magnitude of it. It all came crashing down in an instant.
“I knew I could either cry, or I could take action. My husband, being the protector, grieved a lot. He felt like he let his daughter down.”
Says Kayla: “There were times when I would just cry into his arms, and keep on repeating to him that he was the best father.”
Christine and Joel Schneider are loving and involved parents who remain stunned over what happened to their daughter.
Christine says she had role-played, over and over again, with Kayla and her little sister, what to do if a stranger approached them.
She didn’t realize that the real danger was the amiable and helpful guy, the family friend whose house was filled with trophies and law enforcement memorabilia.
A painful road
“The road to healing has been hard,” Kayla says. “I would like to tell you that after I told my mother that I was molested, everything was OK. I knew in my head I did the right thing. My parents and other people told me ... I saved other girls from being abused by Myke.
“But all I could see was pain around me.
“I felt exposed, embarrassed and ashamed. I felt I brought on this pain to my family. Kids made fun of me at school. Some kids — and even some adults — didn’t believe me and the other girls because they thought we were doing it for attention. My friends didn’t know what to say to me.”
Kayla says she had moments when she thought maybe her family would be better off without her; her pain led her to cut herself, in a futile attempt to replace her mental anguish with physical pain.
Her parents were afraid of leaving her alone, lest she hurt herself. Finally, they pulled her out of school so she could focus on counseling.
She was cyberschooled for the rest of eighth grade.
They also took away her phone for a while, so the bullying she’d been experiencing in school couldn’t follow her home.
'A positive path’
Kayla began going to intensive therapy with Heidi Scott, of Morning Star Counseling in Quarryville. She joined a survivors’ group.
“Kayla has worked so hard to not let this affect her in negative ways,” says the therapist, who commented with permission from Kayla and her mother.
“She has been determined from the beginning to use this experience to help others and I know she has drawn on that motivation to get her through the rough times. ... Kayla decided early on that she was going to choose a positive path.
“She has struggled through the memories and the shame and has always demonstrated tremendous courage, but it has certainly come at a cost.
“It has been painful and lonely at times, but she has never stopped fighting.”
Kayla says she learned in counseling to cope with her feelings, and with flashbacks. “I started to believe that I wasn’t damaged goods and could be happy again.”
She says she came to realize that “God didn’t desert me, and he loved me. Myke made bad choices and it was his fault, not mine or God’s.”
She drew strength from the prayers of family members, friends and her “church family,” she says.
And now, she says, she’s finally starting to feel like “a normal teenager.”
Having returned to school in the ninth grade, she’s a member of Solanco High School’s flag squad, orchestra and Link Crew (a mentoring program aimed at helping freshmen).
She had elbow surgery but hopes to be back on the softball field soon. She’s looking forward to going to the prom with her boyfriend.
She’s excited for the future, she says.
“I don’t believe the road to healing will ever be over for me. I will never forget my abuse. But I am hopeful for the future and my life. I’m happy and now want to focus on helping others.”
The One with Courage Children’s Summit breakfast will be held from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Friday, April 11, at the Eden Resort and Suites in Lancaster. Cost will be $20 a person. Register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 544-7972.