February 9, 2014 at 10:00 AM
WESTFIELD, NJ – About two years ago, Amy B., a freelance writer and editor, saw an ad seeking volunteer advocates at the Union County Rape Crisis Center located here in Westfield. Recalling the kindness she received from strangers at difficult times in her life, she decided to apply and give back to others in need.
“It has been one of the most valuable, important experiences of my life,” Amy said recently. Due to confidentiality guidelines, Amy could not provide her last name for this article.
The center, which in June will mark its 30th year serving the county, depends largely on the service of volunteers like Amy who are on hand to assist male and female survivors of sexual violence.
It will hold its annual state mandated training session two nights a week from April 22 through June 19 for new advocates who meet certain requirements. Those interested in attending the training course are urged to contact the rape crisis center.
Advocates are taught how to actively listen to a survivor and to remain compassionate, said Tamara Adelman, the center’s administrator since 2005.
“They have a really great ability to convey a sense of compassion and empathy,” Adelman said. “In essence, we retain that approach that it’s an honor to serve survivors in this really vulnerable time of need.”
The center, which is located in the new county public safety complex on North Avenue, maintains a 24-hour hotline for victims of sexual assault. Two advocates, one who serves as a back-up, are on call around the clock, seven days a week. The number for the hotline is (908) 233-7273.
Advocates who are on call do not need to be in the office, but Adelman asks that they be in or near Union County. Advocates are asked to work three shifts per month, including an overnight plus one weekend overnight during one three-month period.
“I take a few extra shifts, and I do overnights,” said Amy. “It’s not a strain on me, and I’m happy to do it.”
If requested, advocates may also accompany a survivor to the hospital for a forensic exam within five days of an assault.
In 2013, the center received 246 calls directly from victims and aided in 65 forensic visits, Adelman said. The center currently has 17 volunteer advocates and 2 paid advocates who also work in sexual violence prevention.
Adelman, who earned a master’s degree in counseling from Kean University, also serves as the chairperson for the certification committee of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Union County Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski said county leaders are proud to support the center.
“The Rape Crisis Center has long provided reliable, non-judgmental guidance to Union County residents who are victims of sexual violence,” she said in an email statement. “And through its school outreach programs, the Center is training the next generation of County residents in a new paradigm for preventing sexual violence.”
Kathryn Cleary, a prevention coordinator and community service worker at the center, visits several high schools in the county to teach a media literacy curriculum to student health classes.
“We explore how the media portrays women and men and whether that impacts our behavior toward each other,” she said.
Cleary noted that those between the ages of 16 and 24 are the most vulnerable to sexual violence and that it is “definitely a population you want to target.”
Sitting in a conference room at the center one recent morning, Amy, Adelman and Cleary talked about what makes the center such a special place. They mentioned its supportive environment, lack of the competition so often found in office settings and a sense of camaraderie fostered by monthly staff meetings.
“Everyone is so giving of themselves,” Amy said.