04/04/2013 at 01:50 PM EDT
Erin Merryn was just six years old when she was sexually abused by a male neighbor. She was too scared to tell anyone. "He kept telling me, 'No one will believe you,' " says Merryn, 28, of Schaumburg, Ill.
The abuse didn't stop until her family moved when she was 8 ½ years old. Three years later, a second male relative began abusing her. He scared her into silence as well – until her sister came to her with a chilling story of abuse from the same male relative.
"She just blurted it out," says Merryn. "I thought, 'Wow. Now I have somebody to back up my story.' " The next day they told their parents, who went to the police."
Those heartbreaking childhood traumas are the inspiration for Erin's Law
, which mandates schools teach sexual abuse awareness and prevention, from kindergarden on up. Six states have so far passed the law and another 12 have introduced or are planning to introduce bills, she says.
"I thought, we're mandated in the state to do tornado drills," she says, "and bus drills. I know how to escape from a burning building, though I've never had to do that. But I never had the words to tell people what happened in my childhood.'"
Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network RAINN
, says Erin's Law is an important one and Merryn is a powerful messenger for the cause.
"I think teaching kids about sexual abuse is so crucial to preventing it and putting an end to it," he says. "Erin knows how damaging abuse can be. I think it's incredible that she's been able to take that and turn it into something so positive in a way that's going to help so many people."
Besides championing Erin's Law, Merryn travels around the country telling her story to law enforcement and social service workers and has written two books about her experiences Erin Merryn
. Along the way, she's become an inspiration to sexual assault victims like nine-year-old Kealin from Ontario, Canada.
"My daughter found Erin's website," says her mother, Lindsay, who did not want their last name used because Kealin's criminal case is still pending, "then she just started following her on Facebook and her blog. She's read both of Erin's books. Erin is definitely one of her heroes."
Kealin will soon be heading up a local walk to bring awareness about sexual abuse to their community, she says.
"Erin made me want to do something to help kids," says Kealin. "She's a voice for the voiceless."
In April 2010, Merryn quit her job as a family counselor so she could work full-time on getting Erin's Law passed. She says she's not going to stop until it's on the books in all 50 states.
"I want that seven year old who's being abused tonight to come forward and tell her mother, tell her teacher," she says. "Society is so afraid of this issue. They want to look the other way. That's why I'm not going to shut up."
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