In 2014, Tammy Sedat-Gorel of Burbank graduated with her Bachelor’s degree in social work. She was planning to work in the geriatric medical community—until she saw a posting from Pillars Community Health about an upcoming sexual assault crisis intervention training.
“I realized there are all these local sexual assault survivors coming out of a serious crisis, and they don’t know who to trust or where to go next,” she remembers. “I felt like I needed to help in some way.”
She signed up for Pillars Community Health’s 40-hour training, which prepares volunteers to serve on Pillars Community Health’s sexual assault hotline and directly assist survivors in the local community.
Working the Hotline
Pillars Community Health’s sexual assault hotline is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day. Its purpose is to provide crisis intervention to survivors of sexual assault, incest, rape, and sex trafficking. The volunteers who sustain the service help survivors identify next steps, explain their rights, and offer nonjudgmental support—mostly by answering calls from the comforts of home but sometimes being present for survivors in person. They commit to taking two shifts per month (overnight, Saturdays, Sundays, and/or holidays) for at least one year.
“We get calls from survivors who were recently assaulted, some who experienced sexual abuse as a child and never received help so they’re reaching out years later, and so on,” says Anika Sterling Florez, volunteer coordinator for Sexual Assault Services. “Sometimes they just want to talk, sometimes they want information about services. We train the volunteers to answer their questions and, when it makes sense, refer them to services. Because Pillars Community Health is so comprehensive, we are often able to refer them to services within our own agency.”
If the situation is an emergency, the volunteer may receive a call from a local hospital emergency room and be asked to come to the ER to provide onsite medical advocacy and crisis intervention to the survivor. Pillars Community Health provides the volunteer with a packet of information and a change of clothes to give to the survivor. Though rare, if there is ever a situation that is too complex to address based on training, the volunteer can reach the on-call Pillars Community Health staff member for help.
“No two days are the same,” Sedat-Gorel says. “You might not get a call at all for weeks, and then you might get called to the hospital two nights in a row.”
Sedat-Gorel has been serving as a hotline volunteer since 2014, taking four to six shifts per month. Other volunteers serve their two shifts per month for one year and stop there. Pillars has one volunteer who just retired her services after 17 years. Sedat-Gorel says the training and regular support from Pillars staff sustains volunteers and inspires them to keep going. She has realized a desire to be part of a larger cause, eliminating the stigma often attached to sexual assault.
“The training is eye-opening,” says Sterling Florez. “We don’t just talk about how to help survivors—we also help volunteers find ways to challenge rape culture. We challenge sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression that sexual assault is rooted in.”
Though volunteers only need to take the training once, Pillars offers free quarterly workshops for those who want to stay abreast of the latest topics and issues related to sexual assault.
Connecting to a Grassroots Cause
Indeed, the hotline connects volunteers and survivors to the larger community and a cause with a rich history. Pillars Community Health’s Servicios de Asalto Sexual date back to 1982 through Pillars Community Health’s predecessor agencies. The hotline is one of the key components of a rape crisis center. Pillars Community Health is certified as a rape crisis center through the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA).
The first rape crisis center was developed with no funding and was led by survivors of sexual violence and volunteers. To this day, the rape crisis movement is a grassroots movement.
“There’s no way that rape crisis centers can provide 24-hour crisis intervention and in-person advocacy services with small staffs,” says Patty Murphy, director of Pillars’ Sexual Assault Services and a 22-year veteran of the field. “The volunteers are integral to our being able to meet the community’s needs, and the program gives us a way to get everybody involved in supporting survivors.”
In addition to connecting survivors and volunteers, the hotline provides an important service to professionals. Pillars Community Health partners with seven area hospitals, six universities, and more than 30 police departments who can call the hotline anytime to refer survivors for services. Pillars Community Health is also the local contact for the RAINN hotline (the Rape and Incest National Network, based in California). When someone from Pillars Community Health’s service area calls the RAINN hotline, which is often advertised on television, the hotline automatically connects the caller to Pillars Community Health. Volunteers return calls within 15 minutes and are available to provide onsite crisis intervention within an hour of the call.
Professionals who contact the hotline can refer survivors and also access professional advocacy training, request presentations for their staff or schools, or request referrals to additional services. Pillars Community Health often seeks to link survivors to long-term supports, such as legal advocates, mental health counselors, domestic violence shelters, and more.
“We’re not going to just refer them to the hospital and end the call,” Murphy says. “We’re looking for ways to empower survivors to get back on their feet. That often takes support through the transition and access to longer-term supports.”
Join the Movement
If you are over 18 and have a passion for social justice, antiviolence, or gender-related issues, Pillars Community Health invites you to sign up for a training and join their team of local volunteers. You can search for upcoming trainings in our Events calendar or fill out our general volunteer application to express interest.
“What’s a 40-hour training? What’s a twice-a-month shift to change someone’s outlook on life and to be there to help someone out of a traumatic experience that will be with them forever?” Tammy muses. “40 hours is nothing.”