CHILDREN crime victims find comfort in special gift

Sunday, May 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) _ Jane Storrusten knows what it's like to be a frightened child entangled in the daunting legal system.

It was her early experiences as a child victim of crime that inspired her to lend a helping hand to children all over north central Oklahoma by making stuffed animals _ bunnies _ for the smallest victims of crime.

Each one is handcrafted by Storrusten and her gang of helpers. They cut them out, sew them, stuff them and make clothes for them. Each one is different and each one contains a tiny music box that plays a children's song.

``I started making the bunnies for my six grandkids in 1991,'' Storrusten said. ``It was during that time that I thought the bunnies would be good companions for children who have to testify in court.''

When Storrusten finished the first batch of bunnies, she found herself too frightened to take them to the police department.

``I have always been scared of police officers and courthouses,'' she said. ``I drove the bunnies down to the Ponca City police station and then couldn't get out of my car.''

Storrusten said it wasn't long before a patrol car parked next to her and she gave the bunnies to the officer.

``It ended up that I knew the officer, but didn't realize it at the time,'' she said. ``He was very sweet and when I asked if I could bring more bunnies, he said yes.''

Storrusten's bunnies have multiplied and now are given to children at police departments, Victims Centers and the Department of Human Services offices in Kay and Noble counties and at the Victims Centers in Payne and Logan counties.

We've had the bunnies in our office for the past three years,'' said Rhonda Spencer, the Victims Center coordinator for Payne and Logan Counties. When I contacted Jane about the bunnies, my intention was to ask her permission to find a local group to make the bunnies for Stillwater, but she just started bringing the bunnies to us.''

Storrusten said she was an abused child and the experience with the police and courts was so terrifying she suffered permanent memory loss.

``As a kid you are scared anyway and in court there's a judge, a police officer, a child psychologist so many people of authority,'' she said. ``When I walked out of the courthouse I lost my memory completely and to this day can't remember certain people from my past.

Storrusten, who is called the Bunny Lady by many who know her, wants children who are victims of crime to know they are not alone and to take something positive from a situation filled with negatives.

``I number and initial every single bunny,'' she said. ``That number tells each child who gets one that there are others out there and that they are not alone. It lets case workers point to the number and say this number of people have been through what you've been through and you are not alone.

``My hope is that it saves lives,'' she said. ``I know how lonely and sad abuse can make you feel.''

Storrusten sews bunny bodies with the help of Darla Church; Lavonne McIntyre and Dorothy Soulingny make clothes for them. Storrusten said there are about 25 people who help with the stuffing throughout the year, but that JoAnn Wolfson, her friend Charlie, Stan Larrison, Bill Wentroth and Cherish and Keith Conley are the people who help the project continuously.

``I love to have others helping me,'' Storrusten said. ``It's fun to have all kinds of different ideas. Barbara Manering came up with the idea of clown bunnies and her husband Jess helps us stuff them.''

Storrusten said she and her crew average about 244 bunnies a year _ all with double and triple sewn seams and no buttons, snaps or hooks that could hurt children.

The Bunny Program has attracted enough attention to bring in support and even special events just for the bunnies.

The Blessing of the Bunnies at the First United Methodist Church in Ponca City is the premiere event helping raise the $2,000 a year it takes to keep the program alive.

Storrusten was recently honored at Victims Day at the Capitol when she was selected to receive a Governors Commendation for her efforts.

``I was dumbfounded,'' she said. ``It was wonderful and I never expected it.''

Spencer said the bunnies have given her office the key it needed to reach children.

``It gives them something they can take away with them that is theirs to keep,'' she said. ``It is a tangible object that makes them feel special and it is a positive thing they can get out of their experience here.''