Chapel Hill nonprofit works to fight sexual assault

By Todd Cohen

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — One in five women in the U.S. has been sexually assaulted or raped.

Yet, despite educational programs at their schools to promote safety and reduce sexual abuse, nearly 80 percent of students in all three high schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools say they do not know whether someone either in their school or the school district is responsible for handling complaints of sexual harassment or assault.

And 69 percent of students want more information at school on the issue, while 40 percent are not confident their teachers would know what to do if students disclosed harassment or assault, according to research by the Orange County Rape Crisis Center in partnership with the School of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We know that sexual violence unfortunately happens quite frequently, yet most people don’t report sexual assault because of its stigma and the fear of victim-blaming,” says Alyson Culin, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, which works to stop sexual violence by providing support, education and advocacy.

In recent years, however, in the face of a widening rash of news reports of sexual-assault accusations leveled against political and business leaders and other celebrities, public awareness of the problem is growing, Culin says.

In the past seven years, the Rape Crisis Center has seen a near doubling of clients, she says.

“Our role is simply to provide support, however, it is needed,” she says. “We start by believing and listening. Then, we can help you figure out which options, if any, you may want to pursue.”

Formed in 1974 and operating with an annual budget of $950,000, a staff of 12 full-time and four part-time employees, and 60 to 75 volunteers, the Rape Crisis Center hosts a 24-hour helpline, support groups, workshops, and therapy referrals.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, the Center served 676 clients, mainly through its helpline and follow-up support, and served 75 clients through 22 support groups and workshops.

It also reached nearly 17,000 individuals with over 1,000 safety-education and violence-prevention programs.

It offers free programs in all 17 elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools, to seventh graders in all four Chapel Hill-Carrboro middle schools and all three Orange County middle schools, and to ninth graders in all three Chapel Hill-Carrboro high schools and one of the two Orange County high schools.

And, for a small fee, its offers programs in two elementary schools in the Durham Public Schools, and in a handful of independent schools in the Triangle.

In addition to its traditional support-group programs, which typically are organized around specific types of experiences of clients, such as survivors of sexual assault, or adult survivors of child abuse, the Rape Crisis Center in recent years has begun offering support groups around an activity, such as running, dance, yoga or arts and crafts.

“While some prefer traditional discussion settings, others can find it intimidating to talk with strangers about a very personal experience,” she says. “Many participants have felt more comfortable approaching the subject through an activity first.”

The activities are structured for self-reflection and to develop skills for coping with trauma, she says.

And with multi-year grants of $200,000 each from the Governor’s Crime Commission and the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, the Rape Crisis Center this month is launching an in-house therapy program with two therapists, one of them bilingual.

“Affordable trauma-informed therapy from an experienced provider — especially one who speaks Spanish — is very difficult to find, yet in extremely high demand,” she says.

The Center generates about half its annual income from state and federal grants, another fourth from private grants, United Way and local government, and the remainder from individual contributions and special events, including a holiday auction on December 3 at the Sheraton Chapel Hill Hotel.

It also has raised about $500,000 to expand its programs in the silent phase of a campaign that began early this year and aims to raise another $1 million to buy a larger office adjacent to its current leased space.

“We need a larger space to accommodate more clients and a growing staff,” Culin says. “Of course, the ultimate goal is to stop sexual violence. We aim to support and empower survivors in their own healing process, and we also want to provide our community with knowledge and skills around preventing and responding to violence.”

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