Helping Hands on the Healing Journey

Guest blogger Keri Register describes the experience of becoming a Volunteer Advocate and her first steps into crisis intervention at STSM.

For the past month, I have been working as an intern at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. As both an office intern and a crisis intervention advocate, I have been able to experience both ends of the spectrum in regards to sexual violence. I have gained an insider’s perspective of much that goes on in a rape crisis agency, from behind-the-scenes paperwork and statistical evaluations to standing alongside survivors as they recount their stories to law enforcement and medical personnel. 

My first week was spent in an intensive training program to become a crisis intervention advocate. During the training, I learned that an advocate’s primary task is to answer hotline calls and to stay alongside a survivor who reports to the hospital after an assault. During the training, my group of potential advocates met with a representative from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, a solicitor from the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office (serving Richland and Kershaw Counties), specially trained Forensic Nurse Examiners, and a staff member from the State Office of Victim’s Assistance, as well as members of the wonderful staff at STSM. Each and every one filled in another piece of the puzzle as to what being an advocate actually means.

One key part of being an advocate is accompanying survivors of sexual assault to local emergency rooms, supporting the survivor throughout this difficult experience. The process begins when the survivor comes to the hospital emergency room within 120 hours of an assault to get a rape kit and evidence collected. The hospital calls STSM, and the advocate arrives at the hospital to meet the survivor. The advocate then stays by the survivor’s side during the whole hospital visit, which can take anywhere from three to eight hours, and explains the emotional, medical, and legal aspects of their trauma. Finally, after the physical exam and police reports (if the survivor chooses to involve law enforcement), an advocate will help the survivor develop a safety plan and consider the steps that s/he can take in the weeks that follow to aid in his/her recovery.

My first advocate experience occurred soon after training concluded. Though I had been through all 25 hours of that training, my heart still pounded and adrenaline came in waves when the call came in. I rushed to the hospital, and I really had no idea what to expect when I got there, because I had learned that there is no right or wrong way to feel after a sexual assault and that every survivor reacts differently. I soon found that the survivor I worked with was kind and grateful. Her attitude was that of someone who was fighting to take back control of her life, and I was glad that I was there to help her take the first steps in that direction.

I knew I was there to tell her what resources were available to her and that what happened was not her fault, but words didn’t really seem to fill the silence when she had finished telling her story. I realized that in the coming days, most of what I had said would slip her mind, but the important thing was that she knew there were people who were there to wholeheartedly support her. So we made jokes about hospital food and talked about our dream vacations, and when it was time to be serious, we discussed what her next steps were and what resources would be useful in her recovery journey. When she was finally discharged from the hospital, I walked her to her car, and we said goodbye and that was the last time we will see each other.

Such was the beginning of my work as a representative of STSM. I have been taken out of my comfort zone more than ever before, but I am thoroughly grateful to be a part of such an agency and to be able to truly help survivors of sexual assault.

Capt. Lancy Weeks of the Richland County Sheriff's Department presents at the STSM Volunteer Advocate Training in June 2013.

Keri Register is a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, considering a major in Biology or Neuroscience with a pre-med concentration. Next year, she plans on organizing sexual trauma awareness events on campus and hopes to spend next summer in Europe working with women's shelters and raising awareness about sexual violence.