By ES HETHCOX
Tacked up on bulletin boards across the University of Mary Washington campus are brochures displaying a sketched tree with teal ribbons hanging from the branches.
The pamphlets belong to the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault (RCASA), a non-profit that provides various types of resources to the city of Fredericksburg and Stafford, King George, Spotsylvania and Caroline counties. While this local organization works to combat the issue of sexual assault in the nearby regions, it also provides resources to survivors of assault who are also UMW students.
According to the 2016 UMW Fredericksburg Campus Crime Statistics, the number of reported sexual assaults rose by three from 2015, totaling 11 counts of forcible rape on campus. However, according to UMW’s Office of Title IX, rates of sexual violence at UMW “hold constant with the rates seen at universities across the country.”
That office estimates around 20 to 25 percent of students will experience some form of sexual violence during their collegiate years. In a 2016 survey conducted by the office, 19 percent of respondents reported having experienced sexual violence in college.
These numbers reflect an ongoing issue that universities across the nation face. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), college-age females are four times more likely to experience sexual assault than the general population. In fact, the Bureau of Justice released a 2016 study showing that one in five female undergraduate students has experienced sexual assault in college. However, these numbers reflect only students who have reported their assaults.
“One of the most challenging aspects of studying and addressing gender-based violence is that it is very much under-reported, for a variety of reasons,” said Marissa Miller, associate coordinator of student conduct and coordinator for prevention and advocacy at UMW.
However, even though some victims hesitate to report, the UMW Office of Title IX works hard to spread awareness of the issue by hosting educational workshops and events on campus. According to Miller, these actions encourage reporting.
“As students grow more comfortable and familiar with our reporting processes, we expect reporting numbers to increase,” Miller said.
Typically colleges offer resources to survivors. The UMW Talley Center offers individual counseling as well as group therapy for survivors during the academic year. However, sometimes universities cannot address the constant flow of students in need.
That’s when RCASA steps in.
RCASA is a small nonprofit offering a variety of resources, including educational programs and hospital and court accompaniment. One of the most popular resources is the 24/7 crisis hotline, a free and confidential phone line where people can call and report an assault or find support for previous trauma.
Janet Ison has worked for RCASA for five years as the crisis services coordinator and oversees the hotline. According to Ison, the hotline has trauma-informed staff answering the lines and nighttime coverage. So at any time, a person can call and report an assault and receive immediate assistance.
Similar to the Talley Center at UMW, RCASA provides individual and group therapy to survivors of assault. Some of the methods in individual therapy involve cognitive approaches to processing trauma, art therapy and educational lessons. The groups also focus on ways to heal from trauma and provide psychoeducation and support to members.
Even though the organization has a set staff, volunteers make up a large portion of RCASA’s workforce. According to Christina Berben, executive and clinical director, women are the majority demographic when it comes to volunteers.
The staff hasn’t experienced any issues with lack of participation, even with the mandatory 40 hours of volunteer training.
“The volunteer numbers have been pretty steady over the past year and a half,” Berben said.
While volunteers may not be a barrier for the non-profit, lack of funding and awareness are two issues the small staff combats daily.
RCASA receives its funding from federal, state and community grants as well as individual donations. With the numbers of reported sexual assaults and rapes remaining consistent the organization has a constant pool of clients to serve. In 2017, RCASA provided help to 241 female survivors of sexual assault.
“We are so appreciative of the community’s support of our agency,” Berben said. “But, of course, our agency could always benefit from increased financial support and buy-in from the community.”
The solution to lack of funding lies in spreading awareness. Because of this, RCASA reaches out to the community for help.
In an event called “Paint the Town Teal,” Fredericksburg businesses and restaurants aid RCASA in raising awareness of sexual assault by creating dishes that sport the color teal.
Throughout April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, restaurants in downtown Fredericksburg coat the city teal with awareness themed treats. Katora Coffee in downtown Fredericksburg created a teal latte, and Sugar Shack designed teal iced doughnuts to raise awareness and funds for RCASA. Both businesses donated the money raised for these treats to the organization. In addition, UMW Dining Services served teal desserts to raise awareness among the student body.
While these acts may seem small, they help RCASA in big ways. They actively spread awareness of the issue of sexual assault and inform community members of a local resource to which they can donate. Those individual donations could help reduce the client waitlist and expand RCASA’s resources.
“If we had more resources, more funds, we’d be able employ more counselors and provide more services in a timely fashion,” Berben added.
Impact of the organization
While RCASA faces the challenges that many non-profits face, the organization has seen their services significantly impact the lives of survivors.
According to Berben, clients at RCASA progress through three stages of growth, from victim to survivor to thriver. This growth is a different process for everyone, but Berben said she has seen many victims leave RCASA’s programs as thrivers.
“Perhaps when you go through the doors of the hospital, you’re a victim, but then you begin to process things and see yourself as a survivor,” Berben said. “Then you start to go outside our support groups here and reintegrate and participate in the community. That’s what we see with a lot of our clients.”
Berben explained that thrivers are those who process their trauma and achieve stability. Many go on to volunteer for RCASA, supporting other survivors, even after their own treatment is done.
“We’re not like a lot of other mental health agencies,” Berben said. “Once you’re done with our services you can return—after a period of time—and volunteer and give back to your community. We see that with a lot of our clients.”
Berben explained that the entire community benefits from this kind of healing process.
“Not only does that individual become more stable, but our community becomes more stable as well,” Berben said. “It’s less of a burden on the community when individuals are thriving.”
“When we see that happen we know we are making an impact,” Berben added.
One individual who has benefited from RCASA is Angele, a survivor who benefited from the various resources available.
Before coming to RCASA, Angele had attempted processing her trauma on her own and with other organizations and therapists for 14 years. Sadly, nothing had worked out.
“I was at my lowest point when I found RCASA,” Angele said. “I was barely holding it together, barely functioning and had made very little progress.”
That changed during her time at RCASA.
Angele recalls the counselors taking the time to work where she was in her healing process and even tailoring programs to meet the specific needs she had at the time.
“[Because of RCASA] for the first time in my life I am functioning on my own,” Angele said.
How to support
Although donations and support are vital to organizations like RCASA, combating the stigma of sexual violence begins with letting survivors know of the resources available to them.
Ask anyone at RCASA what should be said or done when helping a survivor, and the answers are simple.
Ison explained that it is vital to tell survivors they are supported and in control.
“You are not alone, and you don’t have to do this alone,” Ison said. “The choice, whatever that may be, is yours.”
“You have to meet them where they are,” Berben said. “A lot of times someone—who is trying to be helpful— might try to say, ‘Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you press charges?’ and that’s not what the survivor wants to do. Let them make their own decisions.”
“Believe them,” said Ileana Negron, RCASA’s case manager.
For more information regarding services provided, call the RCASA office at 540-371-6771.
For more information about volunteering, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 540-371-6771.
For immediate contact the RCASA hotline at 540-371-1666.