Spreading the word about survivor support

Emma Polen | editor-in-chief | The Pittsburgh Action Against Rape team showed up to their event in teal shirts, the official color of Sexual Violence Awareness Month.

Emma Polen | Editor-in-Chief

Hilary Ballard blamed herself not once, but twice for being the victim of sexual assault. The first time was with a close friend. The second time, with a stranger. She believed that she “led him on.” That she “had too much to drink,” that she “didn’t say no clearly enough.”

But back then, at 16 and then again at 22, Ballard didn’t think anyone would take her seriously if she stepped forward.

“How many of us have believed this lie and tried to reframe things so that the blame would fall on us? How many men and women have chosen to stay quiet because they are worried about not being believed, rather than standing up against the violation that was done to them?” Ballard asked her audience on Tuesday.

“My hope and the reason I am so willing to share my story is because I want to remind you that belief is the biggest gift that you can give someone after they experienced an assault,” she said. “So as we begin Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to say to all of those who experience sexual assaults, I believe you. We believe you.”

In honor of Sexual Violence Awareness Month, Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR) spent Tuesday morning in the City County building for their event titled “It’s a Great Day to Believe Survivors.” The event began with a news conference followed by speaking to local leaders and promoting their new mental health support program for victims of sexual assault.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is observed annually in April, and, according to PAAR, it serves as a campaign “to raise public awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence in the United States.”

PAAR is Allegheny County’s only resource center solely devoted to the issue of sexual violence. Their role in April is to spread the word about their programs.

The new free services announced on Tuesday for survivors in Allegheny County encompassed PAAR’s First Steps mental health program.

PAAR Executive Director Sadie Restivo presented the news at the “It’s a Great Day to Believe Survivors,” news conference. Restivo acknowledged the pressures on victims of sexual assault, including mental health care cost, stigma and limited resources. First Steps responds to these needs with full-time case managers, therapy and access to shelters and safe relationships.

“As advocates for survivors, it’s incumbent upon us to advocate for comprehensive mental health services that are accessible, affordable and sensitive to the unique needs of survivors,” Restivo said, “affirming the worth and the dignity of every survivor.”

Cory Hart, PAAR director of development and marketing, said First Steps arose from the team’s realization that there was a gap between services available to survivors and services meeting their basic needs.

These services might solve different problems from client to client, Hart said, including housing insecurity, food insecurity or transportation issues.

“Until you meet those,” he said, “we’re not going to be able to really get you the support that you need.”

First Steps began around six months ago, and PAAR is on their way to fully funding the project team behind it, Hart said.

Still, there is room to grow, he said, especially when it comes to “bridging the gap” and meeting survivors’ basic needs. With Tuesday’s meetings with county representatives, the hope is to amplify their message to those who need to hear it.

Megan Schroeder, PAAR director of victim response, said the purpose of their Tuesday meetings with local officials was to raise awareness of the program’s free, confidential resources for survivors of sexual abuse.

“People who have constituents, they’re offering us as a service,” Schroeder said. On Tuesday, Schroeder, along with around a dozen other staff members and volunteer board members for PAAR, worked outside their typical community to inform city and county officials about their services.

CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Kamila Rivera-Tinsley, also attended Tuesday’s news conference to show her support for a “like-minded” organization.

“What we want to do is support any initiatives that they have, because oftentimes our constituents are also their constituents, and we want to provide a broad block of support,” Rivera-Tinsley said. To achieve their goals, she said that her foundation incorporates as many partners as possible and “get the work done.”

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato spoke at the event, recognizing the courage of survivors and advocating for accountability.

Ballard’s courage led to her personal statement about the importance of believing survivors.

“I’ve worked very hard to heal my wounds and put back together the pieces that were taken from me. I’m proud of that work, and I stand here able to speak openly about these things because healing is possible for survivors,” Ballard said. “For all those who have the honor of being a listener, believe them. Stand in the gap and hold space for the survivor who did the most brave act of all: They told you their story.”