Within the comforting walls of Lindley Hall suite 032-038 lies an environment for all to feel welcome, share their experience and for survivors to gain power and control back in a space where they’ll receive nothing but support and assistance.
The Survivor Advocacy Program, or SAP, exists as a space to provide confidential support and advocacy services to student survivors of sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating/domestic violence and stalking.
“Survivor Advocacy Program is one of the more clinical offices on campus,” Kimberly Rouse, director of SAP, said. “Most of our day-to-day work is related to our direct one-on-one interactions with clients. Most of our staff, throughout the day, might be working on presentations and outreach. But for the most part, a lot of their time is spent face to face with survivors in a clinical session in their office or going through different systems with them.”
The clinical work, Rouse said, comes from attention to mental health through one-on-one sessions that are client-led in terms of language, what’s talked about and what steps are taken moving forward.
In addition to mental health services, SAP also offers legal services like walking survivors through different processes of taking legal action following any sexual violence, other physical violence or stalking. SAP advocates can also act as a support system to be with survivors through court appointments and can provide supplies necessary like clothes and sheets to survivors in need.
“We also have a 24-hour on-call operation,” Rouse said. “If the phone rang right now and it was the hospital saying that we had a student down there that is there for a sexual assault exam and would like an advocate with them, we'll go down to the hospital and be with them — right now, just the same as we will be at (2 a.m.). We're really grateful that we have the ability to be on call and to have that resource for students because that can be a really difficult process to go through and they often have a lot of questions.”
SAP also works with other groups on campus to make sure its efforts are reaching a wide range of people. There are services for co-survivors, or family, friends and partners of survivors, who have been impacted by the trauma that their loved one experienced.
There are also faculty training sessions and presentations to help expand university knowledge about the program, and large events like the annual Take Back the Night, where participants are encouraged to take back the night from sexual and domestic violence. The event is funded by OU’s Student Senate and Women’s Center. It is co-sponsored by My Sister’s Place and the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program as well as a number of other campus offices.
But Rouse isn’t alone in her efforts. There are five employees in the SAP office: Rouse, the director and advocate; Kristin “KC” Waltz, a full-time advocate; Yejin Sohn, another full-time advocate; Morgan Dick, a graduate assistant; and Kaitlyn Urbaniak, another graduate assistant.
All five of the women working in the SAP office are trained to advocate for any survivors who may need the program’s services.
Apart from their daily work, the women also are working on larger projects that they’re very excited to share with everyone.
“One thing that we've started recently is a survivor support group,” Waltz said. “That had been something that people we had worked with for a long time had asked for. We kicked it around — the thoughts of it — for a while, and before the pandemic started, we had decided that we were going to do that. And then, of course, everything shut down. And so after the pandemic, or during it, I guess, we started getting ready to do our support group and started it virtually, which was really good for people who were maybe feeling isolated and needed to have someone to touch base with and share their story and their healing with.”
The group, dubbed TEAL for Together we Empower And Liberate — which is also the color of sexual assault awareness and prevention — meets regularly, and people can contact Waltz via email to join the group and attend as little or often as they want.
Though SAP is funded through the university, which means students pay no additional charge for its services, the team is always looking for ways to collect donations to have as much support and supplies as possible for clients.
“I'm actively right now working on building a few different programs,” Rouse said. “As we have grown and evolved during the last five to six years, we've been able to identify some new needs that have come about. One of those programs is our Survivor Emergency Fund. I've been working alongside our friends in the foundation office to create a fund that will allow us to be able to better support survivors financially when they have needs that come up related to their victimization. This fund is just getting started. We aren't able to fund anyone at this point, but we are accepting donations, and we are going to be starting fundraising for that.”
A portion of SAP’s funding goes toward keeping the office space looking comforting and welcoming to anyone who comes in. As the staff says, survivors making the decision to be vulnerable and share their stories is hard enough, so they want the environment to be filled with warm lighting, fidget toys, empowering artwork and validating affirmations.
“The age of people getting into college is so hard; maybe this is the first time they are living apart from their family or their hometown, the friends they used to hang out with. This is a totally new chapter of their life,” Sohn said. “So, they are in the phase of the time that they have to figure out, ‘OK, how can I live by myself, but also maintain my life here?' So, that can be one challenge. But also, unfortunately, people have talked about how college years or college life can be dangerous and have a lot of sexual assault also happen within the woman's life or another gender population. So, overall, the college year and thinking about their harsh positioning in their life path, I think overall having this specific support for this topic is really important.”
Sohn also talked about how some people who experienced sexual or emotional violence as a child could be experiencing their first time out of the space where the trauma happened, so they could just be getting started in the healing process. This is another area the advocates are equipped to help on: processing abuse from any time of the survivor’s life, not just abuse throughout the duration of college.
For the graduate student advocates working in the center, every time they help someone is not only emotionally gratifying but a step toward their careers as well.
“After doing everything I did in my undergrad, I got a lot of training, and I got to observe a lot, but I didn't get a lot of hands-on experience,” Dick said. “So, moving here and getting the more clinical setting of working with clients and getting to see their growth from start to finish has been really good. I've dealt with a lot of survivors in my life, like friends and family members, so it's always been something that's been heavy on my heart, but I didn't realize what aspect I could intertwine with social work until I started looking for places in my senior year of undergrad.”
Further than career development, each member of the staff has a very deep emotional connection with the work they do in the program. They are all very passionate and proud to be able to serve students this way and are always looking to raise awareness of SAP through new ideas for programming or simply word of mouth through clients or loved ones of clients who feel the program made a difference.
More than anything, though, the SAP staff wants people to know they never have to go through sexual violence or abuse of any kind alone. SAP will always be there — whenever the person is ready.
“Being a student can be really hard but, especially, when you're trying to navigate a recent trauma,” Urbaniak said. “You don't have to go through that alone. By reaching out to the Survivor Advocacy Program, you know that you're always going to have someone there every step of the way with you. It can really just help you take things day by day and figure them out as you go. It's also a great place to recommend for any friends or loved ones that you know who may be struggling with some other trauma. It's nice for them to know that they are believed, that they're supported and that they have someone they can talk to about these things.”
For more information on the Survivor Advocacy Program, to make a donation or to book an appointment, visit its website.
Original article: https://www.thepostathens.com/article/2022/03/day-in-the-life-ou-survivor-advocacy-program-sexual-violence
Photo taken by Riley Runnells.