When we arrived at the park, he turned off his truck…He started grabbing me and kissing me. I told him to stop, but he wouldn’t… [He] then started putting his hands down my pants…
Most of us will never know what is feels like to be sexually assaulted or physical abused. Most don’t know what it feels like to be held down and have someone press their mouth over ours. Most don’t have to block out the memory of having someone force themselves inside us, their smell, their taste, their voice. Most of us don’t know what it feels like to have our individuality disregarded, to feel powerless, to be violated and left to remember it over and over and over.
But some people know exactly what this feels like, and they will never forget. The body heals, but without professional help, the mind may only get worse.
Since the #MeToo Movement began, there has been a nearly continuous stream of high profile sexual assault allegations. Secrets left to fester in the dark for years have been exposed. Most of the stories being told belong to rich and famous people.
Sexual abuse is never easy to recover from, but wealth and fame make it easier to access help. Success can provide access to the media. Often, the rich can be heard. They have a voice.
The vast majority of sexual abuse victims, however, are not rich and famous. They are often poor and comparatively powerless. They do not have publicists or lawyers on retainer. They do not hold press conferences. We do not know their names, and often, they do not have resources to get treatment. Thousands victims don’t have insurance. Some lack legal status. Who can anonymous victims turn to after suffering the worst day of their lives?
They can turn to Project Sister Family Services PSFS. Project Sister provides free psychological and advocacy services to survivors of sexual assault who lack the resources to get help.
“That’s one of the things I love about Project Sister,” Sexual Assault Counselor, Kaitlyn Saulman said. “Our services are free for clients, so it offers an opportunity for people…to get the help that they need without having to worry about the financial strain.”
In 1972, after a series of violent assaults against women in the Claremont and Pomona areas, a small group of women founded Project Sister–Sisters In Service of Ending Rape. They began running a 24-hour phone hotline out of their homes, providing services and support to victims of sexual assault.
With their event, “Imagine Standing Up,” held in partnership with model and photographer, Ashley Obregon’s, Picture the Difference , at the dA Center for the Arts, Project Sister offered another kind of service, enabling victim’s voices to be heard.
At the event, PSFS employees and volunteers read the personal stories of sexual assault survivors and victim advocates.
Picture the Difference, spearheaded by Obregon, also a survivor of sexual assault, presented a multi-media exhibition featuring portraits and audio recordings of survivors, telling their stories in their own words. Obregon seeks to empower assault survivors by helping them tell their own stories.
…I was left afraid and lost…My sister gave the courage to call the police and file a report…They didn’t believe me. They kept taunting me and calling me Daniel even though I told them my name was April…They didn’t care, and they didn’t do anything…
PSFS headquarters are in downtown Pomona in an 80s era, nondescript brown stucco office building with a mildly depressing exterior.
Whether belongs to someone else or it’s our own, we generally try to avoid trauma. Sexual assault and physical abuse are especially nasty forms of the stuff, so walking up the stairs to visit the offices for the first time feels unsettling. It’s easy to imagine the PSFS offices will be a heavy, depressing place. Will it be too much to handle?
Jose Hatem, outreach service specialist, speaks softly. He has a soothing voice and an extremely gentle manner. With every word, he seems to offer compassionate reassurance, so speaking with him has an immediate calming affect.
"The more you go out to help people, the more fulfilling the job is," Hatem said.
Hatem said PSFS provides both intervention and prevention services. With intervention, a crisis has already taken place. Whereas their classes on prevention focus on educating and raising awareness to stop a crisis before it occurs.
…I found a number online, and I called it. It was Project Sister Family Services, and they did care, and I got an advocate. My advocate gave me the courage to call and report the crime again, and this time my voice was heard…I felt understood…They reopened my case…and now they’re looking for [my attacker]. Everyday, I feel a little more empowered and I am getting the counseling that I need. –A story read at Imagine Standing Up about Daniel, who is transitioning to April, a transgender women and sexual assault survivor.
“We do presentations for parents, children, schools. We also go to conferences and community meetings,” Hatem said. “When we go out to do presentations and see all these young kids…you can see the hope in their eyes, and you want to make sure that they’re safe.”
Even though sexual assault is a difficult subject, Hatem said PSFS focuses on the positive change and healing they provide to sexual assault survivors rather than the darkness of the trauma.
“We help the victims and give them positivity. That’s what Project Sister is here for,” Hatem said. “We give them hope. We give them support. We provide them resources, and we let them know they’re not alone. We let them know there’s a way to get through this.”
I called back. It was the forensic nurse at San Antonio Hospital. She let me know a child was coming in for an exam…
Hatem said the work can take a toll. Especially for the volunteer victim advocates, because they are the ones who often meet the victims as they are in the midst of the trauma.
“[The advocates] work a lot of hours for free,” Hatem said. “Being at the hospital with [the victims] right after the incident, they do take the most emotional heat…these volunteers are the bloodline of the organization.”
I entered the emergency room and was immediately taken back. She was 4 years old. I kept telling myself, “You can do this. Hold it together.” I introduced myself to the forensic nurse, and I let the mother know that I was there for her and daughter, who I will call “Hope.”
After just a short time with staff members, the place begins to feel very safe, warm and welcoming. Despite the dark subject matter, the people of PSFS are filled with light.
“The environment here at Project Sister is amazing,” said Evelin Setaghian, a sexual assault counselor and doctoral intern, who works with trauma survivors at the Claremont Colleges.
In contrast to Hatem's quiet, gentle mannerisms, Setaghian has an an enthusiastic intensity when she speaks. She is expressive as she speaks. Her optimistic enthusiasm for helping people get better is almost tangeable.
She said she doesn’t let the seriousness of the work weigh her down down. When she’s not counseling trauma survivors, she likes to sing, dance and joke around the offices.
It’s as if the staff takes the heavy weight of sexual assault and break into tiny pieces, so nobody, especially the victims themselves, have to carry too much of it on their own.
“You learn to stay positive over time because if you’re affected, you can’t help the clients,” Setaghian said.
…The nurse informed me there would be no exam. Hope would soon be going into surgery…Hope had been brutally raped and need extensive reconstructive surgery. I told myself again, “You can do this. Hold it together.”
As if being victimized in a sexual assault isn’t hard enough, survivors often blame themselves, and they’re often blamed and questioned by family and friends too.
“The victim usually comes in feeling like they’ve been blamed,” Setaghian said “Allowing them a place like Project Sister, where they can be told, ‘It’s not your fault,’ is very important because the community does not support them in that way.” She added, “It’s important to always value yourself, and put yourself first, and if you value yourself, then you’ll know it wasn’t your fault.”
Setaghian said many victims come in confused because they were assaulted by someone they felt close to.
“Sometimes it’s an ex-partner. Sometimes it’s a current partner,” Setaghian said. “But if it was done against your will, it’s assault. If you weren’t a consenting participant, and it was done against your will, then it’s sexual assault.”
Saulman echoed Setaghian’s sentiments.
Saulman said self care is very important. She maintains awareness of her stress levels, but it’s the rewarding aspects of the job that keeps her from feeling too down.
“Seeing clients meet goals even if it’s a small goal, it’s extremely rewarding to see that,” Saulman said. “That really helps decrease the stress involved in this environment.”
Saulman's energy seems to fall somewhere in between Hatem's and Setaghian's. She has a quiet gentleness that is reassuring, but her intensity increased, and she became more emphatic when she discussed helping others.
“It doesn’t matter what those around you are telling you. What matters is how you’re feeling on the inside,” Saulman said. She added that if people are questioning what happened to them, it’s better to err on the side of caution and seek counseling.
“What matters is that you somehow felt violated, and we want to help address those feelings, and help get you to a better place,” Saulman said.
…[Hope’s] father started to cry. Once again I told myself, “You can do this. Hold it together.”…I told him the most important thing was to support Hope. Get her into counseling. Take her weekly, and remind her it wasn’t her fault…
Asking for help is often difficult, but it can be especially difficult for survivors of sexual assault.
Setaghian said denial is common in sexual assaults, so it’s important for victims to seek help even if they’re is unsure about what happened to them.
“You know something happened, but you’re also able to put it aside because human beings are able to take the worst things and avoid them, but that develops into PTSD,” Setaghian said.
Setaghian said she experienced similar confusion as a child who struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder OCD. She didn’t understand what was wrong, but she “knew something was going on.”
“I didn’t get it,” Setaghian said. “When my mom got me help, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, there’s hope. There’s help.’ When I got better, I was so excited.” She sees this same hope and excitement in her clients as she guides them towards recovery.
“The clients just tell you that they’re happy, and they feel like they’ve grown,” she said. “That’s the best thing you can hear.”
…I said my goodbyes, walked across the lobby, and stepped outside and I could no longer hold it together…
Sometimes victims are afraid to get help because they don't want their abuser to get in trouble.
"Everything is confidential…We have very strict privacy policies," Saulman said. "Our goal is to make sure the individual is taken care of and to make sure they get the help they need. It's not to try to get people arrested or prosecuted. We focus on the individual and their healing process."
…Months later, I saw Hope again. This time, she was stepping out of a therapy session at our office. At that moment, I realized that is why I do the work that I do. —The story of a PSFS sexual assault advocate, read at “Imagine Standing Up”
To learn more about Project Sister, the services they offer or to get involved as a volunteer, visit their website.
Doug de Wet is the features editor of SAC.Media and a collector of words, ideas, sounds, flavors, and forms. He is suffering from existential dread, extreme self reflexivity, and the questioning of grand narratives.