‘Socially Distanced Support’ : Martinsville Nonprofit Helps Sexual Assault Survivors

By Amie Knowles

March 16, 2021

A Martinsville-based nonprofit offers a different type of support group for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

MARTINSVILLE – Over the past year, COVID-19 created a perfect storm in Virginia. The pandemic’s caused increased social isolation and internet use. According to the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, that’s the perfect recipe for an increased risk of sexual abuse.

The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) released new finings on Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse threats and trends in Sept. 2020. They discovered that victims faced increased obstacles – everything from reporting offenses and seeking medical treatment to finding other forms of support. 

The INTERPOL research suggested that people weren’t reporting certain types of offenses, likely until schools reopen or social services offerings return to normal.

Contacting victims through conventional means also presented an issue during the pandemic. Especially if the perpetrator was within potential earshot. 

Children weren’t the only individuals suddenly in confined spaces with sexual predators, due to the pandemic. One Martinsville nonprofit organization came up with a creative solution to allow victims and survivors a safe space to talk about their experiences.

A Unique Idea

In Martinsville, the Southside Survivor Response Center sought to cut through the fog. While they still offered services to those in Martinsville and Henry County and the surrounding area throughout the pandemic, the team limited some services.

One of the postponed offerings were support group events, where survivors and victims of sexual assault gathered. Together, they spoke about their experiences, helping each other take a step forward in the healing process.

Because of social distancing guidelines, limited gathering requirements and potential exposure to the coronavirus, the group did not host any large-scale spring, summer, fall or winter gatherings. Team members still kept in touch with individuals they met through prior events, but not in a social gathering setting. 

“[The pandemic] has made a big issue out here because our clients are used to just walking into the office and talking to us when things get bad,” said Mary Jones, sexual assault victims advocate. 

An SSRC team of comprised of Jones, Tamika Hairston, grants administrative assistant, and Elizabeth Dickerson, prevention specialist, came up with a creative idea as winter 2021 neared its end.

Since they couldn’t gather with survivors and victims in person, they took to social media. They gauged interest in a Zoom call format. As word spread, their phones started ringing. 

Martinsville Provides a Place to Gather

“Victims and survivors like to meet other victims and survivors and share their personal experiences, deal with some of the coping issues that they’re having,” Jones said. “Some of my clients, for example, will just call me because they’re lonely.”

So when the opportunity to meet, even virtually, arose, many jumped at the opportunity.

“Being in this Zoom meeting, we feel, will benefit them in so many ways. They’ll be getting support. They’re not alone. We want them to know they are never alone,” Jones said. “And they can connect with others, other than just us at the agency, because when we do have open events and they have the opportunity to meet each other, they become Facebook buddies and everything. It’s amazing, just to watch them. They’ll see me and ask me, ‘How’s such and so?’ So they do enjoy being around others that have the same situation and issues that they do because they get to share.”

At the support groups, victims and survivors talk about strategies, coping, feelings and dealing with certain issues. 

“This has been rough on survivors. This pandemic has been terrible,” Jones said. “That’s why we’re doing this. We’re hoping we can make a connection with them this way and give them an opportunity to make a connection with others who are going through the same thing that they’re going through. My people were so excited when they saw that we were going to do this.”

Participation Potential

Attending from the comfort of their own homes, behind their own computer screens, Jones expressed that the Zoom call could attract people that otherwise wouldn’t come to a public event. 

“See, you don’t even have to show your face on Zoom. You don’t. You don’t even have to show your face,” Jones said. “But you can be there and you can communicate with others just like you and relive some of that stress and some of those things you’re holding in. Because I truly believe until you get it out, there’s no room for the new you. There’s no room as long as you hold all of that in.”

Hosting the support group through Zoom came with additional outreach opportunities. Without hindrances like transportation or distance, victims and survivors could potentially join in from across the country. 

“We don’t want any survivor out there to feel that they are alone,” Jones said. “We don’t want that.”

Open to those within and beyond the SSRC’s typical geographic radius, the sexual assault victims advocate invited victims and survivors to tune in, no matter where they resided.

“We don’t care where you live, who you’ve seen in the past. It doesn’t matter. If we can help you, we want to help you. If we can make your day a better day, we want to do that. We want you to come share with us and talk with us, get what’s on your chest off,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter where you live. We won’t even ask you where you live. Just come and hopefully we can do or say something that will make your life a little easier.” 

Additional Measures

In addition to talking with others about assault or abuse, Jones suggested journaling. 

Some mental health and trauma experts promote journaling as a way to write out exactly how one feels, without the pressure of sharing those raw feelings with others. 

Others suggest journaling as a categorical action. Once it’s down on paper, the brain categorizes the event or events as something that happened in the past. Sometimes, once categorized as a historical event that is no longer actively occurring, victims experience another positive step toward healing. 

Signing Up

The first SSRC Zoom call of its kind took place on Wednesday at 2 p.m. Speakers discussed sexual assault, told personal stories about sexual assault and spoke about trauma and healing. 

Promoting a safe and secure space for victims and survivors of sexual assault, the event required registration. 

Those interested in tuning in to future virtual meetings may email Hairston at [email protected] to receive a Zoom invitation. They may also text Jones at (276) 734-3399 for the Zoom link.

All SSRC support groups are free and confidential. 

For those unable to attend the March virtual gathering, Jones said the SSRC plans to host monthly Zoom support groups in the future.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, reach out to the SSRC at (276) 403-4080 or call the 24-hour hotline at 1-877-WE-HELP6 (934-3576).

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

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  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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