- Young Kwak
- Advocates Carol Ulland (left) and Shannon Kapek help people in crisis. "They need to be believed," says Kapek.
There's one night a week when Carol Ulland knows that if her phone rings, someone may be having the worst night of their life.
She's there to help.
As a volunteer with the 24-hour sexual assault crisis line run by Lutheran Community Services Northwest, she regularly talks to people dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, rape or abuse.
Sometimes that means being called to area hospitals to serve as an advocate for victims of sex crimes. She and other volunteer advocates do their best to answer any questions, make people feel comfortable, and restore a feeling of control to them while offering hope, she says.
Even volunteering to run the crisis line about four nights a month, she alone has made emergency room visits dozens of times over three years.
"I stopped counting after 45," she says.
Like Ulland, those who regularly help survivors in and around Spokane know all too well how pervasive sexual violence is, and how hard it can be for survivors to share their stories.
"I've met a lot of incredible people and heard their stories along the way," Ulland says. "It's heartbreaking. I go in making sure that they know I believe them. That's huge."
Recently, though, the reality of how many lives are touched by the issue has been pushed to the forefront of national conversation. In part, that's thanks to an ongoing campaign of women and men sharing their personal experiences with #MeToo on social media, and continuing media coverage as victims come forward to condemn abuses of power by celebrities and politicians.
The increased attention has led to more people calling for community involvement and wanting to know how to respond, says Erin Williams Hueter, director of victim advocacy and education for Lutheran Community Services.
"That part of our work is really busy right now: talking about sexual assault and impacts with other organizations," Williams Hueter says. "It's incredibly validating to see people paying attention to something we care so much about."
For those who work in the field every day, it can also be exhausting when places they usually go to get their minds off of things, like movies or music, aren't the escape they used to be, she says.
"It sort of feels like everything is sort of tainted by sexual violence and there's no one you can trust," Williams Hueter says, explaining conversations that staff members have had in recent weeks. "Most sexual violence is perpetrated by someone you know. It's so hard when you feel like it's everywhere. You want to believe that most people are good. I still believe that, but when the message is overwhelming, like it has been, it's hard on people."
But working to help survivors, and seeing just how strong they are, continues to give the staff strength, she says.
"The victims, their strength is incredible," Williams Hueter says. "It's not uncommon to get off the phone and think, 'Gosh, I don't know how they're even getting up and moving around.' That part of the job is really rewarding and difficult, and that's probably what keeps people here."
For Shannon Kapek, another crisis line worker, it was the support that Lutheran Community Services provided more than 30 years ago to extended family members who were abused that inspired her to start volunteering a few years ago.
Kapek says she is grateful that the discussion of these issues has finally come to the forefront, and she hopes that people won't get overwhelmed and tune it out.
"We are at a pivotal moment as a society," Kapek says. "To me, this is a time when we all need to be engaged, and informed, because I hope that our society is going to undergo change."
Many of the issues are about abuse of power, she says, and it needs to change.
"I told someone, 'I hope that those who have engaged in this behavior, if they don't get called out by the people they impacted, I hope that they have the fear that they could get called out, so they're at least thinking about this,'" Kapek says.
Ulland first figured she'd volunteer for the crisis line for about a year, but after working directly with women and men and being able to answer their questions and support them through police interviews, a hospital visit or just a tough night, it's something she could see herself doing for a very long time.
"I continue to do this work just because I so believe everyone should have an advocate with them and it makes such a difference," Ulland says.
Most often, she says, people want to know if they'll get justice.
"They want to know if what this person did to them is going to be prosecuted," she says.
She'd never tell someone in crisis this, but oftentimes she "could bet that they're not going to be."
According to data compiled by RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), which advocates against sexual violence, of every 1,000 rapes, 310 are reported to police, and only 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction.
"I usually try not to even go there, but I do tell people straight out that our justice system is not fair, it sucks. I want to be fairly upfront with them," Ulland says. "But that's why I do the work that I do, because I don't feel like we have justice for the victims of sexual assault."
She often tells survivors about a friend who went through the whole court process only to have the guy who hurt her let off. About five years later, he hurt someone else, and she testified in that person's case, and again the man was let go, Ulland says.
"She was devastated, again," Ulland says.
But then, the friend got a call — the man was out of state, and had done it again, but this time they were putting him away. They wanted her to know he was being sentenced.
"It was like, 'OK! That's justice,'" Ulland says. "That's why you continue to fight, and you find that one person that will move forward and they do have the evidence they need to move this person off the street so they're not hurting anybody else."
Many survivors say that's their main goal: putting what happened on record, so it doesn't happen to anyone else, she says.
"We tell them, 'What you're doing is not ever a waste of time.'"
Lutheran Community Services supports survivors of sexual violence with therapy, legal services and advocacy as needed, and encourages them to focus on their individual healing.
"We often tell survivors not to hinge their healing on the justice process for accountability," Williams Hueter says. "Even if you get it, that horrible thing, that worst day of your life, it still happened. Of course getting justice in whatever form is really validating, but your healing is so much more important."
Part of healing is feeling empowered to share their stories, which in turn can help others, Williams Hueter says.
"Every time a person shares their story it empowers more and more people to come out and share what happened to them," she says. ♦
Lutheran Community Services' 24-hour sexual assault crisis line is 509-624-7273. (To help, Lutheran Community Services is usually looking for new clothing that advocates can bring with them on hospital visits, as well as volunteers to staff the crisis line.)
You can also call Frontier Behavioral Health's 24-hour First Call for Help line, which is available for supportive listening and helping with all sorts of emotional and mental health issues, at 509-838-4428 or toll free at 1-877-678-4428.