Trigger warning: This entire post is about my experience as a volunteer for a rape crisis center, details from which may be upsetting to survivors.
In August 2005, shortly after I moved to D.C., I responded to an ad in the Washington Post Express, a call for volunteers at the DC Rape Crisis Center. That action has defined my experience in D.C. for the past six-a-half-years.
I still remember with total clarity my first visit to the Center’s then-basement office downtown — and my initial interview with then-volunteer assistant Jessica Ingram (who I recently reunited with in her current position as Assistant Director of Admissions at HUC-JIR!). I fumbled some of the questions that she asked me, but I must have said something right, because a few weeks later I began the twelve-week training to become a hotline counselor and hospital advocate. Those sessions took place at the Luther Place Memorial Church, one block from where I live now, where I’ll pack up to take my leave from D.C. in a few months. Talk about coming full circle . . .
During that training, I first learned about rape trauma syndrome, about inclusive language, about rape culture, about white privilege, about “isms” — all of which have had a profound influence on my intellectual development and worldview. I learned active listening skills, how to handle suicidal callers, and challenges specific to male and to deaf survivors. I learned how to talk to survivors’ loved ones. I learned to laugh on occasion in the face of horror — and why a sense of humor is one of the most important survival skills. I learned why we say “survivors.”
Since that training — over the course of at least 300 shifts — I’ve answered hundreds of hotline calls (and completed paperwork for each one), made dozens of hospital visits (and completed even more paperwork for each one of those), and ordered countless cabs for both volunteers and survivors (see above, re: paperwork). I’ve called every homeless shelter in the D.C.-area at least once, and I’ve spoken with emergency services in four states. I’ve seen almost 20 classes of volunteers graduate after me, and I’ve led training sessions for many of them. I’ve supported new volunteers as a “big vollie” and as a back-up supervisor during their hotline and advocacy shifts. I’ve served on the Center’s board, as volunteer liaison, for the past four years. I’ve seen eight amazing women lead the volunteer corps, with at least as many (no less amazing) volunteer program assistants. I’ve seen the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program run by four different women at two different hospitals. A thousand times I’ve said, “I believe you. You’re not crazy. You’re not alone.”
My first visit to the hospital, back when survivors were routed to Howard, was in 2006. I had completed my training months earlier but just hadn’t ever gotten called to the hospital on any of my advocacy shifts. When I got the call just after midnight, I was afraid — that I wouldn’t remember what to do, that I wouldn’t be of any help, that the survivor would see my fear. When it was over, I called my back-up to lament my inadequacy. But a month later, the volunteer office shared with me a thank-you letter that the survivor had written to the Center. The initial flush of pride turned to fear (again), and I expressed the concern, “I don’t know if I can do that well again.” And that’s when the wonderful Kim Lopez smiled and said to me, “But you’ll try.”
I went on to win the “most valuable” volunteer award two years in a row. But I really, really don’t want this to seem like bragging. I am definitely proud of what I have done with the Center, but I haven’t done anything extraordinary. I just used the excellent training and support that the Center offered me. And it turns out that our society — not to mention the medical and legal systems that survivors must navigate — treat victims of sexual assault so badly that it doesn’t take much to seem practically like a ministering angel. In every encounter, I strove to meet survivors where they were and to treat them as what they were: human beings in pain.
I wish I could say that I remember every survivor I met in the hospital, but over the years the many faces and stories have run together. I’ve advocated for college students and for sex workers, for tourists and for homeless people. I’ve seen a survivor laughing and chatting with friends right before the exam — and I’ve seen a survivor beaten unrecognizable. I’ve had gifts pressed into my hands — and I’ve been told to “get the fuck out of my face.” I’ve helped a woman figure out how to keep an assault from her partner — and I’ve seen a man break down while trying to figure out how to tell his. I’ve seen survivors raped by lovers, family, friends, acquaintances, employers, caregivers, and strangers.
As might be expected, the work has taken its toll on me. On the hotline, I’ve been terrified by prank callers, worn out by repeat callers, cursed at by angry callers. A few years ago I suffered a bout of severe symptoms as a secondary survivor, as a result of exposure to so much trauma. I couldn’t hear or read anything related to sexual assault without being triggered. After a volunteering hiatus and numerous therapy sessions, the symptoms became less severe. And I’ve gotten much better at self-care, setting boundaries, and saying no.
Usually when I tell people that I volunteer at a rape crisis center, they assume the experience is thusly horrific. But — and this is why I decided to write this post — the experience was unquestionably and unbelievably rewarding. As I told my mom after I got that letter: I can die happy, since I know I have helped one person on this earth.
Even more, I found myself during training: I was unemployed when it started, and by the time it was over, I had my first job in D.C. Initially I wasn’t sure if I had the qualities to be a good volunteer, but the experience first showed me that I was capable of some measure of true selflessness and sympathy.
To be sure, I’ve seen possibly the worst thing one human being can do to another, but I’ve also seen the best thing one human being can do for another — in the form of the legions of (mostly) women willing to answer a phone or go to a hospital at any time of day for a total stranger. I’ve never stopped being amazed at my fellow volunteers. And some have become my closest friends or my (s)heroes: Mara Berman (who I met the first day of training!), Kim Shults, Edda Santiago, Ana Ottman, Mahri Irvine, Stacey Lantz, Chai Shenoy, Liz Nelson, Amy Gordon, Alicia Gill.
I can say with complete confidence that I’ve gotten more out of being a volunteer with the Center than I’ve given.
And yesterday, I asked to be removed from the active volunteer email list. More than anything else, this action has made real my upcoming move. I don’t know how to live in D.C. and not be a DCRCC volunteer; I’ve known the Center longer than I’ve known my husband.
But it’s time to go.