In the summer of 1990, Anne Heck was riding her bike in northern Virginia when she was attacked and beaten before being dragged into the woods and raped.
In the months that followed, Heck began her physical recovery and even volunteered with a rape crisis center in Virginia. But she also experienced frequent episodes of post-traumatic stress that left her struggling to breathe. The episodes continued after Heck moved to Asheville in 1991, and she was referred to the Rape Crisis Center.
“I spoke with a volunteer and I just remember feeling this sense of calm,” Heck says. “Having someone who knew what it was like to be in a trauma situation — it helped just to know there was
someone who could understand and support me.
Heck went on to become vice chair of the board of directors at the Rape Crisis Center — or Our Voice, as it’s known today. The organization, which started as an all-volunteer, grassroots endeavor in 1974, will celebrate its 40th anniversary on Thursday, Sept. 4. Though the early focus was on crisis intervention and counseling referrals, today Our Voice provides a 24-hour crisis line, counseling services, community outreach and youth programs maintained by a small paid staff and over 50 volunteers.
“We’re working to create a community that says, ‘Sexual violence is not OK against any individual,’” says Executive Director Angélica Wind. “And we’re working to make a community where those who have experienced sexual violence feel safe to disclose — where they don’t have to endure victim-blaming or attacks on their credibility.”
Behind the lines
“When I talk to people about what it is I do, a lot of the time they say, ‘Oh, I could never do that! You’re so brave,’” says Pam Wellman. “But I feel like a lot of people could do this. It’s just about being a regular person in the room for something that is a scary and uncomfortable experience.”
Wellman has volunteered as a crisis response advocate with Our Voice for almost two years. She serves on the organization’s 24-hour crisis line, where she says it’s not uncommon to receive calls from survivors experiencing post- traumatic stress similar to what Heck experienced.
“We do get calls from people in acute crisis, as in actual physical danger, but also people who have had a previous trauma triggered and just need to talk to someone,” Wellman says. “Sometimes people just call to find out more information.”
Wellman says people may hesitate to call the crisis hotline out of fear that it will commit them to taking action before they are ready to do so, but she says this isn’t the case.
“It’s very low investment to call the hotline and talk to someone,” Wellman says. “You’re not committing to going to the hospital, you’re not committing to going to court. You can choose the level of investment you want and what feels right for you in your healing.”
Volunteers at Our Voice also accompany individuals affected by rape and sexual assault to the emergency room to provide support during examinations and wait times, which Wellman says can take up to six hours.
“Your job is just to show up and witness this act of strength that is happening,” Wellman says. “There is bravery that is required to be a witness and be a support, but it’s not that much different from being a regular person. And in many cases, that’s exactly what survivors need — a normal person who isn’t a medical person, to help it feel less alien.”
Our Voice volunteers also work in community and school outreach programs including Climbing Toward Confidence, which focuses on confidence-building exercises for low-income girls ages 12-14, and Bar Outreach, which promotes bystander intervention by training bar staff and patrons how to spot someone under the influence of a date rape drug.
Wellman says if someone is interested in volunteering but feels uncomfortable being in the hospital or speaking to large groups, Our Voice will still have a volunteering niche that can be filled.
“It’s just about making the clients feel supported,” Wellman says. “It’s a wide range of people who come through our doors and some have family support, or community support, but some don’t have any at all.”
A voice for everyone
John Langlois was 50 years old when he sought therapy for stress he thought was related to his job. But shortly after beginning the counseling process, Langlois began to realize how his mental health had been affected by being sexually abused by three different perpetrators as a child, something he had never discussed with anyone.
“I always kept quiet about it because I thought I was OK,” Langlois says. “I went to counseling for job burnout, but I realized that a lot of what I was experiencing was compensation from not dealing with those issues.”
As a medical professional, Langlois says he was aware of Our Voice as a resource for women, but, like many men, he was hesitant to speak out about his experience and unsure what services were even available to him.
“I do think there is shame involved for everyone, but shame is a very big issue for men,” Langlois says. “We’re raised that we’re not supposed to talk about things. That’s a stereotype, but it’s very true.”
When Langlois first contacted Our Voice, he found that a men’s group had existed but it was not active. In an effort to make sure other male survivors knew they could find help, Langlois became a volunteer and speaker at Our Voice events and wrote columns in local publications. In 2011, Our Voice gained funding to establish the One in Six program, which takes its name from a study from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention that found one in six men have been victims of abusive sexual experiences. The program provides one-on-one and group counseling for adult males, and, according to Wind, is currently the only program of its kind in Western North Carolina.
“We have had survivors who have driven to Asheville from Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina to participate in the program, which shows that there just aren’t many programs of this kind,” she says.
Wind adds that though Our Voice grew out of the feminist movement, the organization’s mission has always been to serve all of Buncombe County.
“Sexual violence does primarily affect women, statistically, but in reality it affects all communities,” she says.
Langlois says that he was surprised to see how many men had been affected by sexual assault. “It was an awakening and a comfort to know that I was not alone,” he says. “But it is also sad to see how many others out there had experienced it.”
When asked what she would like to see Our Voice accomplish in its next 40 years, Wellman pointed to increased support for sex workers and more programs like Kelly’s Line, the organization’s voicemail system that allows sex workers to anonymously report sexual and physical assault. She also hopes to see an increased awareness of victim blaming, which she says is pervasive and ranges from seemingly innocent comments such as, “She shouldn’t have gone there alone,” to more appalling and graphic statements.
“You hear children say, ‘She was asking for it,’ because they’re repeating something they’ve heard,” Wellman says. “That needs to stop, all the way.”
Langlois says he hopes to see consistent and secure funding for men’s programs, as well as an increase in public awareness of sexual abuse against males. “There have been these public issues with Penn State, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and people will talk about it for a few weeks and then forget that it’s a bigger issue. We need to not ignore this.”
Heck says that she has seen an increased focus on education and prevention since 1991 and would like to see that continue.
“Our Voice has done an exceptional job creating these programs,” Heck says. “People are more willing to talk about sexual violence today, but we still try to put it away and not address it. It’s ugly and it’s uncomfortable to discuss, but it doesn’t get better unless we bring it to light.”
Wind says that Our Voice’s focus on prevention will continue as the organization adds new programs, including Teen Tech Safety, which focuses on the consequences of sexting and sharing explicit photos, and an extension of Bar Outreach, which will teach college students about the increased risks that come with drinking and the importance of consent in sexual activity. She adds that the organization will also continue its support for programs geared toward minorities, including Latinos, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
“Hopefully, in another 40 years, we won’t exist because sexual violence has been eliminated,” Wind says. “But that’s a perfect world. In 40 years, we want the rates of sexual abuse to be lower because the community as a whole is talking about this and taking a stand to prevent it.
“We started this program to create a better response to individuals who have already been impacted,” she continues. “But what we’ve also done is develop strong, innovative prevention programs that are helping us change that paradigm.”
Our Voice will celebrate its 40th anniversary at the Diana Wortham Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 4, with a keynote address by Anita Hill, a law professor at Brandeis University and an advocate for sexual harassment laws. Tickets are $50 or $100 for VIP tickets, which include a meeting with Hill. For more information, visit
ourvoicenc.org or call 252-0562. X