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Orange County Rape Crisis Center Calls for End to Sexual Violence

by Shea Riggsbee


It runs like clockwork. The call comes in. Helpline volunteers ask for a first name and telephone number. The beeper sounds. Within 10 minutes, a trained Companion is on the line, assessing the victim's needs. Twenty-four hours a day, there is a friend on standby at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.

For over 20 years now, the Rape Crisis Center has been providing a system of support for victims of sexual violence and their friends and family members-a system that counties across North Carolina have sought to emulate. Believers in the center have weathered shoe-string budgets, cramped quarters, closed-door government, and community resistance to see the organization become what it is today. And the services provided for victims of sexual violence alone are among the best to be found.

But for all these years, supporters of the Rape Crisis Center have shared an even more ambitious mission: prevention of all sexually-related violence in Orange County. "We want to move past the point of reacting," says Margaret Henderson, Executive Director of the Center. "We want to bring about an end to sexual violence." Certainly, that goal has not yet been reached. But the foundation is in place. The Center is part of our community

Its services are now interwoven with other county organizations: law enforcement, hospitals, schools, and the university. Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass credits the Center with establishing the procedures the police follow when caring for victims of sexual violence. Today, when police respond to a sexual assault, they automatically place a call to the Center.

Community Educators from the Center have designed programs to inform elementary, junior, and high school students about ways to prevent, recognize, and report sexual violence. Each year, school children and adolescents receive new information from the Center through programs that range from puppet shows to video clips. Programs are also available to adult audiences on topics that include: sexual harassment, self-protection, awareness and prevention, and talking to children and teens about preventing sexual violence.

Additionally, in a fairly new form of community service, the Center's Pediatric Clinic volunteers work with sexually abused children and their family members at the Child Medical Evaluation Clinic at UNC Hospitals. Associate Professor of Social Medicine and Pediatrics, Des Runyan, says, "The Pediatric Clinic volunteers provide a tremendous service for the patients. They have made the clinic a friendlier place." Attitudes are changing

Miriam Slifkin, one of the Center's founders, says she can remember when people wrote letters to the Chapel Hill Newspaper calling Rape Crisis Center organizers "kooks." Janet Colm, the Center's first full-time director, says she has seen awareness and understanding of sexual violence increase dramatically. People at the Center understood the issue wasn't just stranger rape. The difficulty was how to get the message out," she says. "That's what time does." Pendergrass says the Center has been a major force in changing people's views. "A person who is out walking at 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning has a right to do this walking", he says. "The public has got to become more aware. . . all in all, Rape Crisis has put this out front." A Group Effort

What the Center has become is nothing short of amazing to those who saw its meager beginnings as an offshoot of the Chapel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women. Slifkin recalls those early days when she held meetings for the Center in her home. "Every time we'd meet, we'd pass the hat," she says.

Now, four full-time staff members operate the Center from its Estes Drive office, serving a county of over 90,000 people on an annual budget of about $150,000. And though the hat no longer travels around at meetings, a great deal of the Center's services are still provided on a volunteer basis. In fact, Henderson estimated that in 1994, the Center's 132 volunteers gave more than 5,000 hours of service to the community.

Though the Center has served thousands of clients in person, over the phone and through support groups over the past 20 years, Henderson says these services are no longer the Center's primary mission. The time spent in public schools is evidence of that. In 1994, Community Educators reached 6,624 county residents through educational programs alone.

"Our history is helping us accomplish our goals. Every year, we talk to school children and adults about sexual violence," Henderson says. "We feel that every time we send our message out, we are one step closer to stopping sexual violence in our county.


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