April 17, 2013
Chelsea Stearns says she could barely look at herself in the mirror, after being sexually assaulted by an acquaintance.
"I felt disgusting and taken advantage of," Stearns said in the days after she was attacked. "I felt like it was all my fault and there was nothing in this world I could do to change it."
Stearns remembered a presentation she sat through in high school, by the Sexual Assault Resource Agency (SARA). "I knew what they were about. I remembered the plays and the presentations from school." A month later, Stearns sought out help from SARA and says the decision changed her life.
"I realized I wasn't disgusting and I was a human being and I realized I had feelings and I had rights and I had the right to say no."
The outreach and education efforts by SARA are a large part of the organization's mission. SARA holds workshops for students and school administrators in schools across central Virginia. The outreach focuses on sexual assault and prevention.
SARA's adolescent educator says the three-year program is designed to be self-sustaining in school districts. "Our main goal is for them to leave knowing what consent and non consent are, as well as having some sense of responsibility to step in if they know of some incident that's happening," said Laurie Jean.
At Western Albemarle High School, Frank Lawson had Jean talk to his class of ninth grade boys. Lawson says these types of discussion are important for students. "How a couple communicates with each other is a difficult process. Especially at 14 and 15. It may get easier as we get older, but the message still has to be made about how to be safe, how to respect, and how to care for somebody else."
That message being spread by SARA's outreach efforts, is in danger of disappearing, due to funding cuts. With a staff of 12, plus two dozen volunteers and a budget near $500,000, SARA depends largely on state and federal grants. But the funding for the organization's prevention and education program relies heavily on local support. SARA's executive director says one local foundation decision to cut it's funding to SARA, means the outreach program will be operating with about half of it's funds.
"Unfortunately, if we are not able to recover that funding from somewhere else, it may mean that we can not do as many prevention services as we have been doing," said Becky Waybright.
Waybright says the cuts couldn't come at a worse time. Statistics show that one in four women and one in eight males will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.
"The number of sexual assaults are so high and the numbers of sexual abuse in children are so incredibly high and we need to have services there for people who have been affected but we also need to try to change things so it doesn't happen quite as much and so that we can potentially have intervention happen before a situation gets to an assault."
For information on how to donate to SARA, visit www.sexualassaultresources.org