STAR on the rise – Local organization and volunteers fight back against sexual assault

The Miami sun shines golden and warm on the little Cuban girls charging through the grass. Kristine, white, brunette, a free spirit and all of 6 years old, watches as they run and they play and they laugh.

She knows what some of them don’t know yet, what her wounded little heart hopes that perhaps somehow they might never come to know.

There’s a monster in the yard.

Kristine Colgin, an executive assistant and entrepreneur in Baton Rouge, wakes from this, her recurring nightmare, her haunting memory, in a dead sweat.

If Colgin is going to get any sleep, if tomorrow she will talk about her trauma, relive it all, she’s going to need a Xanax.

It’s 2 a.m., and across town, Alex Juan is just arriving home. The house is quiet. Her teenage sons and her husband are there, but they’re cozy and asleep after the family dinner Juan bolted from with the ring of one phone call. The call. The one she always expects will come‚Äîduring her sons’ ballgames, or a movie, or like an electric shock in the dark of the night.

She can’t shake what she just saw at the hospital. The family and victim she counseled. The details she heard. The wet of the tears she feels still though her cheeks are now dry. The pain of confusion. The intense need that tunnels its way into every part of her life.

Juan goes for a run through the neighborhood. A long run. It’s not about forgetting. This is her search for catharsis, a method of exhaling the trauma and breathing in something ordinary, something mundane, something to help her re-enter a world that just about everyone else around her seems to function so well in; a world in which hearts do not constantly break for the many victims of sexual trauma.

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every five women nationally is living as a victim of sexual abuse. That translates to a potential 90,000 women in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Baton Rouge’s Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response Center (STAR) is leading the charge against this gender violence and sexual abuse. The organization’s services include a 24-hour crisis hotline, 24-hour medical advocates, counseling and support groups as well as educational programs.

“My motivation is to create social change–to actually work towards breaking through the stigma of sexual violence and get to the root cause of this social and public health problem,” says Racheal Hebert, STAR’s executive director. “From TV, advertising, videogames and music, our culture has a huge influence on the perpetuation of sexual violence.”

Slightly more than half of all sexual assaults go unreported, according to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey conducted between 2006 and 2010.

There are many reasons for underreporting in the Baton Rouge area, explains Hebert, not the least of which is the city’s pervasive drinking culture.

Whether alcohol is involved in an incident or not, one of STAR’s many goals is to shatter the stigma of shaming the victim or the tendency of victims who were drinking before being abused to blame themselves. Instead, the group encourages those assaulted to seek immediate assistance and report the incident.

Jody Raphael is a visiting law professor at DePaul University College of Law and author of the new book Rape Is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis.

She says a lack of empathy with those assaulted contributes heavily to victim blaming and rape denial. Others cannot fully comprehend the physical and psychological effects of being violated in that way, she concludes.

“Time, support of family and friends, and counseling are important ingredients for recovery, but recovery is never quite complete, because the experience changes victims permanently,” Raphael says. “Many survivors, unfortunately, believe they are now damaged goods. Rape crisis centers are essential, but sadly, [lack of] funding does not permit them to assist all rape victims in a timely manner.”

STAR’s operating budget for 2012 was $429,705, with the bulk of that coming from local government contracts and donations from individuals and foundations.

Federal grants make up 12% of STAR’s budget. The organization receives no state dollars.

With a funding increase of 25%, Hebert says STAR could implement new prevention education programs for students in K-12th grades, and more urgently, increase access to and awareness of its services in surrounding areas that have no sexual assault treatment centers. STAR’s Baton Rouge office serves clients across East and West Feliciana, Point Coupee, Ascension, Assumption, Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes.

“It would be great to be able to have a bigger presence in those communities, and even satellite offices, so that individuals living in outlying parishes would know there is a place to get help and not have to travel all the way to Baton Rouge to get it.”

While STAR’s dollars are stretched thin, the group is making an impact with a small, but dedicated and growing team of volunteers. Some are survivors of sexual trauma themselves who have recovered and devoted their lives to helping others do the same.

As a volunteer STAR hospital advocate, Alex Juan is on call many nights from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. to counsel victims almost immediately after they have been assaulted. It’s not just a commitment she has made. Her family has made it, too, for roughly 80 hours each month.

A Guatemala native who grew up in New Orleans, Juan is a former police officer—she was the only female in her unit—and a trained military sexual assault advocate. She’s confident and speaks at a rapid clip. You would never know she was sexually assaulted at 18.

“I didn’t get to this ‘happy place’ overnight,” Juan says. “It took a lot of time and a lot of support.”

Juan has worked through her own trauma, and this serves her, the victim and even the nurses well when she arrives at the hospital.

“There are so many emotions going on—their world has been shattered—so it’s a matter of educating the family on how to be there for the survivor,” Juan says. “There are so many details, and it can be draining emotionally, but you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel their pain. You can’t get it out of your head the next day. It’s infuriating.”

uan serves as the point person for all of the victim’s needs, through the rape kit, through greeting shocked family members, through the shame and anger and confusion of a woman trying to relay the worst experience of her life.

“It’s hard to understand what a survivor is going through if you’ve never been through it,” says Debra Barnett, an LSU graduate student and STAR intern. “Trauma affects self-esteem, which affects everything. People tend to either have incredibly rigid boundaries so they don’t let anyone in, or they have no boundaries and let everyone walk all over them.”

Barnett is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and now leads a local recovery group for those who have experienced similar trauma in their past.Barnett sees her volunteerism as an integral part of her own healing journey.

“I can turn something that was really horrible for me into a positive by helping other victims, to let them know it’s possible to work through this and come out stronger,” Barnett says. “I want people to reclaim their lives, their power.”

To begin that process, incidents must first be reported. Barnett recently began volunteering on the STAR hotline, taking calls from victims who simply need someone to listen, believe them and lend their support.

STAR has seen an uptick in these calls and in new clients this year. Awareness of the organization and its services is slowly taking hold.

“Reporting has increased locally,” says Nicole Gillum, director of client services at STAR. “It’s amazing to see, and that’s what we’re passionate about: breaking the silence. We all talk about sex, but when it comes to sexual trauma, this is an epidemic that people don’t want to look at.”

With 12 years of experience, Gillum is the organization’s longest-standing staff member. In order for Baton Rouge to move forward, she says the city needs more communication between health care professionals and law enforcement and tougher penalties for sexual perpetrators.

STAR offers clients 10 counseling sessions of 50 minutes each before referring clients to state social services. Gillum continues to build a network of local social workers and counselors who will follow up with trauma survivors on a longer-term basis after their STAR sessions have concluded.

I first meet Gillum at a red-bricked curio hidden in plain sight under the click of cleats and a rustle of leaves near the caddy shack at the City Park golf course. It’s a ground-paved, octagonal labyrinth patterned after a similar one in a small, 14th-century church in Genainville, France.

STAR encourages clients to walk this winding path at their own pace. It’s therapeutic, they say. I have a few minutes before my interview with Gillum, so I give it a try.

Gazing at the complex crosshatch of octagonal lines and chevron angles, the start feels daunting. Soon, the turns don’t feel like progress. I keep walking, but at times I feel like I’m only going backwards. I want to stop. Then I really want to go, but I’m tired of making circles. It looks like I am so close, then, with a blink, I’m right on the edge. I tell myself it’s not worth it, that it’s a waste of time. But I’m not a quitter, so I keep walking, careful not to cross any lines, careful to stay focused. Then suddenly, almost before I know it, I’m in the middle. I’ve arrived, and I can’t recall exactly how I got here, but I know the journey was longer than expected, and I look back and see how even though some of the journey felt like a twist, like a wrong direction, it was actually pushing me on to the goal.

From age 5 to age 10, Kristine Colgin was serially abused by her grandfather while growing up in an older section of Hialeah, Fla., near Miami, she claims.

At 12, she told her parents. Colgin did not see her grandparents again after that, but the authorities were never alerted to the abuse. Aunts, uncles and cousins were not warned. It remained a secret.

Colgin’s parents couldn’t handle it, she recalls, and her family crumbled soon after.

As an adult, she learned to fill her days with her career, social activities and projects, sports, a series of dysfunctional relationships, even her rapid-fire sarcasm—anything to keep her busy and her mind off of herself and her traumatic youth

“I actually went to STAR hoping they could help me be more productive,” Colgin says. “But there I learned that production wasn’t what I needed. I needed rest.”For years Colgin suffered strange visions and even suicidal thoughts. She startled easily, and any mention of prison or confinement, any ominous scenes on television or in movies would torture her mind.

Last spring, after counseling sessions with STAR, Colgin made a therapeutic breakthrough when she shared her story at a retreat.

“I thought all I had to offer them was my garbage, the thing that I thought made me absolutely detestable,” Colgin says. “But that talk was actually accepted more than anything I ever did to try to make people love me. It changed everything.”

For her talk, Colgin received a standing ovation.

Now she is volunteering at STAR with the goal of helping to educate parents on what to do if their child is a victim of abuse. She wants to adapt her journals and the speech she gave at the STAR retreat into a sexual assault help book.

“There’s such a gap [in communication],” Colgin says. “This needs to be a huge focus.”

Thanks to STAR, Colgin is on the path to recovery, but she dreams still of those little Cuban girls, her neighbors from so long ago, playing in that yard. The yard with the monster.

Only now she envisions her arms growing like great tree trunks, immense and mighty, wrapping around each one of them and running‚ running away to safety.

“I want to rescue them all,” Colgin says. “I want to stop the bleeding.”

For more information on STAR and its services, visit brrcc.org.