Elijah Lee was only in first grade when the world as he knew it became a much darker place. He was all of 6 years old the day he noticed the bruises on the leg of a classmate. When he innocently asked what happened, if she’d fallen down or somehow hurt herself, the young girl confided in him that her parents, in the midst of a fight, had hit her.
He didn’t quite understand the magnitude of the situation, but it scared him. He did the only thing he knew to do: He told his mom, and he told a teacher.
Elijah’s life changed in that moment.
Now 12 years old, Elijah is planning his fourth march against child abuse, a small but mighty voice for the many children — like his classmate — who can’t speak up for themselves.
For his efforts, Elijah is among 20 children in the running for the first “Kid of the Year” honor, a collaboration among Nickelodeon, Time magazine and Time for Kids. The distinction honors young movers and shakers nationwide who aren’t letting their age stop them from making differences in their communities. More than 5,000 children were nominated.
It’s not the first accolade for Elijah.
In 2018, after his first organized march against child abuse, he was recognized by the Marvel Hero Project for his efforts, including being featured in a Marvel comic as “The Incredible Elijah.”
The Nickelodeon-Time award, which the family just learned about this summer, will be announced during a special Nickelodeon broadcast Dec. 5.
That happens to be Elijah’s 13th birthday, which makes it all the more exciting for a kid on the cusp of teenhood, a kid who has braces and a dog named Max, a kid who loves playing chess and a kid who, most of the time, revels in the sibling rivalry with his older brothers and his younger sister.
Yet, for all the things an adolescent could be doing, Elijah feels the weight of the world on his young shoulders. The feelings he had back then, that one day in first grade, remain with him. Led by his faith and supported by his family, this young soul is tackling a heavy issue, and he’s inviting the world to join him, one child at a time.
According to the National Children’s Alliance, roughly 700,000 children are abused each year. Some get the help they need. Many do not. The reality is staggering and horrific.
It’s a harsh subject, even for adults to comprehend. But Elijah’s strength of his convictions belies his young age.
Jessica Lee moved her family to Chesterfield County for her work in July from Roanoke Rapids, a rural town in northeastern North Carolina near the Virginia border. It has a population of roughly 15,000 people, many of whom are low-income individuals and families. Her husband — Elijah’s dad — died when Elijah was 3.
On a recent school night, Elijah talked about his experiences and his new community, which is much different from his old one in lots of ways. He attends Swift Creek Middle School now, though he’s never actually been there, and even though Chesterfield school students can elect to go back to school, he chose to remain virtual. His new community is a lot bigger than his old one, he said — but it’s also ripe for new opportunities to spread his message.
On this night, Elijah was wearing a T-shirt with a phrase he adopted on the back: “When one rises, we all rise; but when one falls, we all fall.”
In first grade, “I knew nothing of child abuse,” Elijah said. “I was very blessed to have a home with a mother that loves me, with siblings that have my back, with people around me that I knew I could lean on and trust — but unfortunately, the same thing isn’t with every kid.”
“When I first heard that my friend had been abused, I didn’t know what to do,” he said, and it led to discussions with his mom about child abuse.
“There are some kids that go home afraid; there are some kids that go home hungry; there are some kids that go home knowing that ... they’re gonna probably get hit,” he said. “It definitely left my heart with something to think about.”
As her son spoke, Lee sat back and listened. She chimed in occasionally, reminding him about this or that. But for nearly six years, she’s watched her son walk in his purpose, gaining the strength on his own to tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem. She guides, but she’s not his mouthpiece.
Elijah can hold his own, in large part, because of his natural calling to preach the gospel.
By 10, Elijah was an ordained minister and was preaching in their former church every fifth Sunday until this past March, when the pandemic halted services. At their former church, when youth members would be given time to sing before the congregation or read Scripture, “he would go up there, [and] you would just get this full sermon, and we didn’t even know where this was coming from,” Lee said.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” she acknowledged. While theirs is a family of faith, “that was not something I was expecting at all.”
But the more he did it, “he got bolder with it, and you could just see it manifest,” she said. At the same time, he was becoming more aware of child abuse.
Lee recalled the day Elijah came home and told her about his classmate. She talked to him about child abuse. No parent wants to introduce such atrocities into their child’s life, but she wanted him to hear it from her and to understand it in the context of their family’s values.
“To be frank, I thought it was going to be a general conversation and we’d be done with it and we’d be able to move on,” she said. But Elijah didn’t let it go, and “what really changed [was] I saw his heart hurting.”
“You want your children to stay as innocent as possible, for as long as possible,” Lee said. “But I would rather him understand it from our perspective as a family.”
Elijah began to think of ways to help, and in the year or two that followed, as he was learning about people such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activist John Lewis, he put the pieces together himself.
King and Lewis were “people who fought for what they believed in by marching and using their voice,” Elijah said, so he decided to organize a march against child abuse. “When I presented the idea to my mom, ... she thought I was crazy.”
As a second- or third-grader, however, “that was my life,” Elijah said. “I was huge on presenting these big massive ideas, ... but this was something I really felt I needed to do.”
Elijah’s first march, which took place in a park near his old home, drew about 200 people. The second one drew a few more, somewhere around 250. Last year’s march, held just before the pandemic shuttered everything, drew nearly 450 people, some from up and down the East Coast. In addition to the gatherings, Elijah organizes speakers, including himself.
He’s had to learn how to get a permit for an event, how to talk to local government officials and how to work with local law enforcement to make sure people remain safe during the events — and how to give media interviews.
Chuck Hasty is the former Roanoke Rapids police chief. By phone from North Carolina earlier this month, Hasty said Elijah was a big force within their small community.
“We need more young people like this, trying to make an impact,” he said, noting that he met Elijah when the young man was organizing his first march, and needed help with permitting and park access. Hasty said not only was Elijah passionate about the subject and raising awareness, but also about doing it the right way, from a citizen’s standpoint.
“He wanted to know how he could make a positive change, and the right way to make a change,” Hasty said. “He was such a good influence, and the message was hitting home with a lot of people.”
Hasty said he learned just as much from Elijah as the other way around.
“I took ahold of him and his family,” Hasty said, “and he took ahold of me.”
Elijah is currently planning his fourth march, for March 6, 2021. It’s always the first Saturday, though this one will be virtual. It’s from 1 to 2 p.m., and links will be sent out via social media. Speakers so far include Gov. Ralph Northam and Jon Hatami, the California prosecutor for the Gabriel Fernandez case in which the 8-year-old boy died in May 2013 after being tortured and abused by his mother and her boyfriend.
The theme for 2021 is “Justice 4 Children.”
“I feel like child abuse is one of those things that no one wants to think about,” Elijah said. “We all understand it occurs; we all understand it happens — we all know there’s a possibility our neighbors are abusing their children.”
He added: “We see children as these innocent, vulnerable beings, and when child abuse comes into play, that innocence and vulnerability is not only being violated, it’s being taken away.”
Part of learning about child abuse was also learning what happens on the other side — foster care, child protective services, laws. Elijah even visited a hospital in his former hometown to see where children go when they’ve been abuse victims. He said the dark, cold walls of a hospital room aren’t the sort of place a child can feel comfortable.
“I was just trying to think what’s going through this child’s mind,” he said, “putting myself in their shoes, where I’ve just seen my parent being taken away in handcuffs, [and] I definitely have scars on me.”
Then entering that sort of hospital environment, “that’s not helping them,” Elijah said.
It led him to start a GoFundMe initiative to raise money to transform a hospital room into a kid-friendly environment. He raised $3,000 — then was bolstered by being a guest on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and given an additional $1,000 there. The hospital, Vidant North Hospital in Roanoke Rapids, offered to match his funding, and also provide two rooms for children instead of one.
Both of the rooms will be in the hospital’s emergency department. They’ll feature fresh paint, in either neutral or colorful tones, and one room will have games, a computer and more. The other will have wobble chairs, toys, a big-screen television and other features. They hope to be done with the rooms by next spring.
“We are inspired by Elijah’s passion and are honored to work closely with him and his family on this important issue … to raise awareness for, and ultimately end, child abuse,” said Vidant North Hospital President Jason Harrell by email. “The pediatric safe rooms will provide a safe, comforting place for those that use them.”
The marches, the speaking events, the hospital initiative — though he’s making a difference already, Elijah said his work is just beginning.
Elijah wants to be a prosecutor. He wants to be a congressman. He has a way of drawing people in with his determination.
The way he talks, his cadence with words — sometimes breathlessly, sometimes soft and quiet — show that he’s got the gift of gab, even now. He refers to other children as “our young people,” as if he’s not a young person himself.
But Elijah doesn’t just want people to listen to him — he wants to inspire other young people to do what he’s doing.
Kids like him.
“I came from the same place as you, the same economic status,” he said he used to tell people during the marches in his former hometown. “I was able to do this, so what stands in your way?”
He continued: “We can march all we want; we can talk all we want. [But] what really matters is us as young people getting involved in these politics so we can really change the laws to better the safety of our young people.”
“Your best friend could be going home right now afraid that their stepdad or their dad or their mom ... is going to hit them,” Elijah said. But “once children understand that, they’re gonna know that’s not right and they understand they can do something about it.”
“That’s really where our change starts to happen.”