ALLOUEZ — When actress Alyssa Milano used social media to encourage women to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment, she helped launch a national movement called #MeToo.
“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” Milano posted on her Twitter account Oct. 15, 2017. Milano later wrote that she had been harassed “so many times I can’t count.”
Milano’s willingness to share her story had an impact that was felt in the Diocese of Green Bay, including the Sexual Assault Center of Family Services in Green Bay. “When all of that was going on, our hotline started going off,” said Chelsey Steffens, victim advocate and volunteer coordinator at the Sexual Assault Center.
“It was like friends and family members saying, ‘I want to get my friend connected, my spouse connected,’” said Steffens. “Not only that, but my volunteer interest skyrocketed. It was a huge influx.”
Steffens, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Oconto Falls, said the #MeToo movement made people aware just how prevalent sexual assault is in their own communities.
“People were like, ‘Wow, this is so close to home.’ They were going through their Facebook feed and seeing the #MeToo on all the people that they know,” she said. “It just called them to action, like ‘I can be part of this. I want to do something.’ So that month, I had like 50 people reach out. I couldn’t keep up.”
Steffens wants to keep the awareness generated by the #MeToo movement going, especially as the country observes Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. Steffens and Shelby Mitchell, who serves as the Sexual Assault Center’s sex trafficking victim advocate, spoke to The Compass March 15 about services the center offers the community. They are eager to connect with religious communities, including parish councils of Catholic women, as well as welcome new volunteers.
The Sexual Assault Center provides a 24-hour hotline that operates 365 days a year and is available to victims of sexual assault or abuse, their families and friends. The services are free of charge and confidential. Other services include crisis intervention and counseling; medical advocacy; legal advocacy; follow-up assistance; a victims’ support group; community education; and volunteer and internship opportunities.
“We are currently looking to increase the awareness of our need for volunteers in Brown, Oconto, Marinette and Door counties,” said Steffens.
To observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Mitchell, who attends St. John the Baptist Parish in Howard, said the Sexual Assault Center is holding a kickoff event at noon Monday, April 2 at Hagemeister Park in Green Bay.
Mitchell said the trial of former USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to a minimum of 40 years in Michigan state prison for abusing young gymnasts, also propelled the subject of sexual abuse.
“We had a lot of victims speaking out about that,” said Mitchell. “I think it just became very powerful for other survivors and many felt compelled to come out of the shadows and share their story. For many of them, it was the first time they were sharing their story with someone. They weren’t really looking for anything, other than just that supportive person, which is exactly what an advocate is.”
Mitchell added that the calls they received were from adults and not children, “so we didn’t have any obligation to report anything, and that it would be up to the adult to make that move.”
The Sexual Assault Center served 1,433 people in 2017, she added.
Steffens said people often believe perpetrators of sexual violence are strictly strangers. “That necessarily isn’t the case,” she said. “About 90 percent of victims we work with know their assailant in some capacity. … A lot of people don’t want to think that they could know somebody who is capable of these crimes.”
Steffens said she has given presentations on sexual violence and prevention at churches and welcomes requests from area parishes. Mitchell, who has worked with survivors of sex trafficking for nearly two years, looks to partner with religious groups, such as women religious, to bring more awareness to the issue.
Steffens said the agency is in need of volunteers, whom she calls “the backbone of our agency.”
“We could not do our work without our volunteer advocates,” she said. “They help us maintain the 24/7 hotline on the weekday nights and on weekends.” No experience is necessary and the training schedules are flexible. “We have about 19 volunteers right now,” said Steffens. “They are all very passionate about this work.”
Bringing more awareness to the issue of sexual violence is one positive outcome of their work, say Steffens and Mitchell. Another outcome they witness is the strong spirit of people to overcome their experiences.
“People are very resilient,” she said. “People can get past this violence and this hurt and this betrayal and live productive and successful lives. But in the moment and through this process, they need an advocate, someone who is going to stand by them and help them understand their resources, their options and their rights.”
Having the Sexual Assault Center to walk with them through the trauma makes the process of recovery possible, added Steffens. “We are therapeutic. That’s what keeps me going.”