Survivors of sexual abuse use 'courage' in speeches

Dora McQuaid, coordinator of 'Evening of Courage,' speaks to a crowd in Webster's Bookstore Caf', 128 S. Allen St., about sexual assault.

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A crowd of 50 listened to at a function sponsored by Women of Courage.

The crowd of about 50 people sat hushed. Most of them were female, a few were young and a few were old. But they all sat with their eyes fixed on who was speaking, and they listened as if there was going to be a test afterwards.

They gathered for the "Evening of Courage," sponsored by Women of Courage of Centre County, in Webster's Bookstore Café, 128 S. Allen St. The program was a collection of speeches by survivors of sexual assault and abuse and by professionals who help victims cope with their experiences.

One woman made a T-shirt adorned with the words, "I am a woman of courage. It was not my fault." The shirt was a large, blue T-shirt with a small, green shirt sewn to it. The green shirt had a picture of the survivor as a child. She then went on to tell how her stepfather sexually abused her, and how she reached the point where she had the courage to speak about it.

"They are only words. They are nowhere near the hell you have survived," she said.

Dora McQuaid and Mary Ohashi, the organizers of the event, read a poem, interspersing the verses with statistics about sexual abuse. Ohashi said 1.5 million women are sexually assaulted each year by their spouses. McQuaid followed Ohashi with this line from her poem "My Pretty:" "He would ask just before the fist came down, 'Who loves you, baby?' "

McQuaid, who is a survivor herself, said an event like last night's takes many months to plan. She made it clear to the audience that at no time during the night was a survivor to be confronted.

"I can't even tell you how many phone calls we made," she said. "It's difficult to get survivors. It requires a lot of flexibility."

Another survivor told about how her father sexually abused her and how her mother turned the other way.

"They were my parents," she said. "The people I was supposed to trust."

She told of how the abuse led to bouts with alcohol, thoughts of suicide and feelings of hopelessness. She said she confronted her parents regarding the abuse, and they denied it. She has had little contact with her father since the confrontation.

"My story is no better or worse than the ones you heard tonight," she said. "It's just mine."

Detective Chris Weaver of the State College Police Department also took the microphone, explaining how he got involved with helping victims of sexual assault and abuse.

"I was on permanent night shift for six years. I was always working the busy nights. It was just the nature of my schedule," he said.

Many sexual assaults were reported during his shifts.

Weaver is actively involved in making a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) a reality in State College. The team would work in cooperation with medical personnel, forensic nurses and counselors to make sure victims received the best possible care available as soon as possible.

Weaver said that sometimes victims of sexual assaults are forced to wait up to seven hours to receive a thorough medical examination and might have to retell their story to many people numerous times.

If a SART were in place, the victim could possibly receive a complete forensic exam in a half-hour and only have to tell the story once. He also said SART is more prevalent on the West Coast, possibly because there is more crime. San Diego has had a SART since 1981, he said.

"They laughed at us when they heard we didn't have one here. They have everything they need right there. Even free food and clothing.

"Ultimately, that is where we want to be," Weaver said.

A SART would be able to go to wherever the victim chose to go, such as a doctor's office or hospital, he said.

"They chose to go there because they feel comfortable. It will help us keep the comfort aspect," he said.

Weaver thinks SART will help spread by word of mouth that police are doing a better job about sexual assault cases.

"It's a scary thought, but once we start, the cases are going to go through the roof. I'm going to have my hands full," Weaver said.

Elaine Meder, one of the owners of Webster's, said she was honored to have the program in her store.

"I didn't even have to think about it when they ask me," Meder said. She hosted a previous program for Women of Courage in October.

"It's heart-wrenching, but I'm just so proud they can get up there and share their stories," Meder said. "We'll definitely do it again."