Hands Off! Jeri Ann Kooiman works to make life less menacing for children
Jeri Ann Kooiman started the Hands Off Our Children program in 2001 after a man selling advertising on benches reawakened her to the vulnerability of Yavapai County's youngest residents.
Kooiman said the man worked for a national organization for missing and exploited children. His niece had been abducted and murdered - by her own parents.
"I was born and raised in this county and I've seen an enormous amount of changes," said Kooiman. "People move here with a false sense of security that there's no crime. But there are tens of thousands of acres of vacant land. I got to thinking how easy it would be to abduct a child, and we don't have a program that teaches parents and children how to communicate about stranger danger and abduction."
She went to quad-city area junior and senior high parking lots and observed how young people conducted themselves.
"The realization was, they don't pay attention to what goes on around them," she said.
Kooiman said she used to pull into her garage and go into her home, without associating with neighbors.
"We're too busy (as adults). But I realized my (then) 9-year-old son knows whom the new neighbors are, who got a new dog or new car. I wondered who our children are talking to in the parks when we think they're old enough to be there on their own," Kooiman said.
Kooiman takes the Hands Off Our Children program, complete with fingerprinting kits, to churches, clubs, neighborhood watch groups and area events, as well as providing safety tips on the radio. She teaches kids, "A stranger is someone your mom and dad do not know. Even if you see them every day, they're strangers if you don't know them."
She helps kids make wall hangings by tracing their hands, arranges for self-defense experts to talk to them, and instructs them to carry themselves with confidence and pay attention to their surroundings.
And if a stranger tries to grab them, to "scream, bite, claw and fight back."
For parents, her tips include:
Monitor your kids' computer use.
Show up at home during the day.
Revisit house rules as kids grow, or are home for the summer.
Role play with younger kids.
Talk about "funny" feelings and appropriate touching.
Use a password with the kids that strangers won't know, and change it frequently.
Have a plan if the family gets separated in stores or at places such as fairs and amusement parks.
Ask kids point-blank if they have problems with people bugging them on their way home from school, or anywhere.
Keep children's baby teeth, hair or nail clippings and updated school photos.
Kooiman said the whole point of Hands Off Our Children is to "talk about abduction like it was a fact of life."
"Where we've lost it," she said, "is we don't have family time. Children are not comfortable having an open dialogue."
Kooiman grew up in Clarkdale, where her father was a Carnation milk distributor. She still recalls how uncomfortable she was as a 10- or 11-year-old when a company driver from Phoenix kissed her on the mouth in greeting.
"I can remember to this day the panic," she said. "If someone gives you a creepy feeling, I can't stress enough that you need to tell somebody about that feeling.
The Good Lord gave us that instinct. My parents never talked to me about it."
Now, in addition to running their successful business, Kooiman Realty, Jeri Ann, 53, and her husband, Dave, soon will open a dialogue with the tiny children they will raise as their own. They recently received temporary custody of two grandchildren, ages 5 months and 2 years.
Although she also currently serves as president of three organizations: the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Yavapai, the Better Business Bureau, and the Prescott Valley Economic Development Foundation, Kooiman makes educating families about stranger danger a priority.
"If I can go to a venue and save one child because I taught them to kick and scream, or told parents to not display their child's name on a backpack, it's worth it."