Project Woman event focuses on victim support

Two-day event seeks to bring awareness to the problem.

In 2014, the Springfield Police Division reported 644 cases of domestic violence, 146 protection order cases, 20 felony sex offenses, 12 misdemeanor sex offenses and 47 attempted rapes.

“Sexual assault and domestic violence are pretty indiscriminate,” said Laura Baxter, executive director of Project Woman. “It happens to all types of people.”

In serious cases of domestic violence or sex crimes, police partner with Project Woman, a local nonprofit agency whose mission includes providing services to protect, educate and empower domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

“They’re involved in most of our cases for the most part because we make referrals to them when we need to have a domestic violence victim placed in a shelter,” said Springfield police captain Michael Varner. “So it’s an ongoing relationship, it’s not just once in a while when we need them or they need us.

“It’s a collaboration and has been for decades.”

April is Project Woman’s “Take a Stand” campaign, Baxter said, and the agency has encouraged the community to take a pledge to stand up against violence.

“We try to focus a lot on what we call bystander responsibility and empowering people to stand up,” she said.

It is important for survivors of sexual violence to have support, Baxter said.

“The journey to surviving can take a lifetime,” she said, “and we don’t judge that process, we just encourage them.”

As part of Sexual Assault Awareness month, Project Woman will host an event called “Empowered and Free: Survivor Transformation” today and its annual Strides Against Violence 5K Run/Walk Saturday.

Project Woman has been trying to focus on the survivor’s journey, Baxter said, so the “Empowered” event will feature Mike Pistorino, a sexual assault survivor from The Bronx who is now based out of Cleveland. Pistorino will share his story and encourage other survivors to join in the dialogue.

“We talk about people who are a victim,” Baxter said. “A person could have been a victim like Mike when he was a child. But at 40, if you still identify as a victim, there hasn’t been a transformation.”

To encourage that transformation, “Empowered” will include a ceremony for survivors to outwardly embrace that moment of letting go and moving on, she said.

“There is a process within the experience of moving on — not that you ever forget, not that you can ever be without that experience — but if you can thrive and live past it, then that’s the transition,” she said. “It’s the moment you let it go and redefine and say, ‘I am me and I am a survivor.’ ”

Project Woman was founded in 1974 as a one-room rape crisis center. Though it has grown to offer many more services, it still provides rape crisis support and has a 24-hour crisis hotline as well as an advocate available 24 hours a day to meet and provide support through any civil or court processes, said Susan Loudenback, who has been a Project Woman advocate for nearly 14 years.

The agency also provides emergency shelter for domestic violence and sexual assault victims and their children as well as case management services, mental health and recovery services, and prevention and outreach services.

For more information about Project Woman’s programs and services as well as upcoming events, visit its website at Project Woman’s 24-hour crisis hotline is 1-800-634-9893, while the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.

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