A calling for justice Feature: Staffing the help line at the Sexual Violence Center is a "calling" for its volunteers
Meg, left, and Kristen Houlton Sukara. Photography by Sarah Whiting
by Anne Hamre
One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. These are life-altering crimes for those assaulted - as well as for their families and friends.
Meg's experience as a "secondary survivor" - someone who cares about a victim/survivor - while attending the College of Saint Benedict sparked a calling she now pursues as a volunteer advocate with the Sexual Violence Center (SVC).
"I had many friends impacted by sexual violence," Meg says. "I was lucky enough to be friends with a person who decided to do something about it." This led to student-led discussions and efforts to prevent sexual violence.
"By the time I graduated, by no means was this issue solved, but I think many other students would agree that as a wider community we were beginning to address it more intentionally," Meg says.
Saint Benedict, a women's college founded by Benedictine Sisters, is rooted in social justice traditions - and Meg found the same focus at SVC. She began training as a volunteer advocate even before her May 2016 graduation. "My first week of training overlapped with my last week of class," Meg recalls.
"I knew I wanted to be with an organization that challenged me to talk about issues of gender and sexuality, and one with a strong sense of social justice," she says. "On their website [SVC] talks about working with communities of color and LGBT people - that was really important to me."
"Practicing radical nondiscrimination is at the core of what we do," says Executive Director Kristen Houlton Sukura. SVC serves people as young as 12, of all races, cultures and walks of life.
Being a volunteer advocate with SVC is no casual undertaking. Potential volunteers are interviewed. Not everyone is ready for the emotional demands of the advocate role, Houlton Sukura notes. After learning more, some choose other ways to help, like making financial or in-kind donations or serving on the board.
"Our field attracts people who are passionate about sexual violence issues, and inevitably, some of that passion may come from past experience as a victim/survivor," Houlton Sukura says. "It would be irresponsible to accept [a volunteer] who is early in their healing journey and is going to be triggered by this work. You need to be at a certain place of stability - far enough up the ladder that you can reach down to help someone else."
Several weeks of training follow the interview. State law requires 40 hours of training to qualify as a "sexual assault counselor" for purposes of providing services to victims/survivors of sexual violence. SVC provides more than 50 hours. The training, offered three times per year, runs two evenings per week and all day on Saturdays. (With the volunteer coordinator's blessing, Meg missed one day of training to attend her college graduation.)
After training comes a period of practical mentorship. Before taking calls on the crisis line, for example, new volunteers listen to staffers and experienced volunteers handle a range of calls. Then mentors listen to the new volunteers on the phone.
Calls come from a wide range of people in many different situations. "Some have been assaulted that same day. Sometimes it was many years ago, and they're just coming to terms with it," Meg says. A significant number are secondary survivors.
The most challenging calls, says Meg, include "those where you are acutely reminded that you are on the phone and there's nothing physical you can do. You might want to give someone a big hug, but you can't."
Strong sense of community
The hotline is just one aspect of volunteer advocacy. Volunteers participate in all aspects of SVC's work, including legal advocacy (e.g., helping someone file a restraining order) and medical advocacy. SVC works with 11 hospitals; when someone who has experienced sexual violence comes in, an advocate goes to the hospital to provide support.
Meg averages 40-50 volunteer hours per month with SVC, on top of her full-time job. This includes office work, overnight hotline shifts and medical advocacy.
While volunteers are exposed to all these roles in their first year, some later decide to focus on one, Houlton Sukura says. A single parent may not be able to make late-night hospital runs, for example, and opt to focus on hotline work (calls are routed to an advocate's phone).
Houlton Sukura takes pride in the lack of distinction between staff and volunteer roles. "I work shoulder to shoulder with our volunteers," Houlton Sukura says. "We don't limit them in the work they can do."
Indeed, she's been in their shoes. Houlton Sukura, a four-year staff member, started as a volunteer 11 years ago.
"It's because we offer such a rich volunteer experience that this agency made its mark on me," she says.
It's done the same for Meg. "Sometimes I'll come home at 4 a.m. after doing medical advocacy, and just sit and cry for a few minutes. This work sometimes makes the world feel like a terrible place to be in," she says. "But then you go into the office, connect with an advocate you haven't seen in awhile. ... There's just an incredible sense of community."
FFI: To find out about being a volunteer advocate, as well as other ways to become involved: sexualviolencecenter.org/donate
To get help, call the Center's 24-Hour Crisis Line: 612-871-5111 or 952-448-5425