Helped by ARPA funds, Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center prepares for a new chapter in its 50th year serving Douglas County
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
As the Douglas County Commission wrapped up the process of allocating $21 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding last month, one request that made the cut was from the Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center, which was seeking funding to support a move into a larger office space.
It’s especially fitting that the $184,500 in pandemic relief funding granted to the center will allow it to make that move — and expand some of its services, to boot — in the 50th year since the agency’s founding in 1972.
“We’re the oldest rape crisis center in Kansas, and one of the oldest in the nation, so we have this very long legacy of support in Lawrence and our community,” the center’s executive director, Chrissy Heikkila, told the Journal-World in a phone call Friday morning. “I think it’s important to people to be proud of the level of support we give survivors in our community and be supportive of that. We’ve been really just in awe this whole year of our trajectory as an agency, and it’s pretty exciting in our 50th year to be able to expand and support more folks.”
The center is set to move to 330 Maine St. The building was the former home of safety net provider Health Care Access, which merged with Heartland Community Health Center about five years ago. Heikkila said the hope is to be operating out of the new space by November at the latest.
The funding came at a great time for the care center, Heikkila said, considering that it’s seeing more clients than ever before. For reference, there were 667 unique visitors in 2020. Seven years earlier, in 2013, there were only about 220. That number only grew in 2021. The number of unique clients who had experienced or been affected by sexual violence and visited the center last year was 900.
“We have, over time, just continued to see more and more clients,” Heikkila said. “I think it’s important to say that we don’t necessarily think sexual assault is rising or a bigger concern in our community, it’s just that through different movements like the #MeToo movement and really big cases that have come out, we know more survivors are reaching out for services.”
The center’s services are available at any point in a client’s process of healing, Heikkila said, whether that’s an hour after they’ve experienced a sexual assault or 50 years down the road. And from the care center’s perspective, a rise in the number of clients it serves doesn’t mean there are simultaneously rising numbers of sexual assaults in the community. In fact, Heikkila said there has actually been a reduction in reported sexual assaults during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It became clear, especially during the height of the pandemic, that the center needed more space to serve clients and house staff in a safer environment, Heikkila said. At 3,000 square feet, the new space nearly doubles the size of the center’s current location in an office building at Ninth and Mississippi streets, a 1,600-square-foot suite with just three enclosed office spaces. Heikkila said the new space will allow for more privacy for the agency’s clients; it’s in a standalone building that will more than quadruple the number of enclosed office and meeting spaces, with 13 of them to work with.
On top of that, relocating places the center in an area much more conducive to its work — right across the street from LMH Health’s emergency room.
“Part of our agency’s services is we attend sexual assault nurse examinations at the hospital, 24/7,” Heikkila said. “We’re there frequently providing support for survivors that are going through the process of evidence collection and working with the hospital through that. That building’s going to be really wonderful in that location, and we get increased space.”
Relocating also means there will be opportunities to expand the center’s services even further. For one, Heikkila said the center is already looking to expand its therapy program; it’s currently working off a six-month-long waitlist of clients, and Heikkila said the hope is to reduce that wait time by hiring more therapists and other staff. She said part of the reason more employees haven’t already joined the ranks is simply that there hasn’t been enough physical space to house them.
Heikkila said the agency is also looking forward to being able to expand its volunteer opportunities. She said there’s an expectation that there will be more walk-in visitors — and community engagement in general — with the move to the standalone space, and thus more opportunities for community members to lend a hand in one way or another.
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Over the years, the center has gone by several different names. It started in 1972 as the first rape crisis center in the state of Kansas, a response to a number of sexual assaults occurring on the University of Kansas campus, and was incorporated as Rape Victim Support Services in 1978. The agency is perhaps best known by that name, given that it stuck for nearly 30 years.
Since then, the agency’s name has changed twice. The first was in 2004 to GaDuGi SafeCenter, a Cherokee word that means “working together in a community sense.” The new title was intended to be a more inclusive name and recognize the expansion of the agency’s services. Although the agency originally focused on sexual assault on KU’s campus and in Lawrence, it eventually branched out to all of Douglas County and even farther out to Jefferson and Franklin counties, and it now has agency offices in Oskaloosa and Ottawa. Its current name was adopted in 2015.
“I think that’s part of the reason why a lot of folks haven’t been able to follow us,” Heikkila said. “We’ve had different name changes that are significantly different in our time here in Lawrence.”
The center has also been housed in many locations over the years. It has operated out of its current space for six years, and before that was located in the United Way of Douglas County’s previous office location at 2518 Ridge Court for around two decades.
With the latest big change for the agency on the horizon, Heikkila said staff will be taking time to recognize the previous five decades. The center plans to host a free community celebration Sept. 15, complete with a walking timeline tracing the agency’s history. Also, the center will recognize some community partners and volunteers that have made a difference over the years.
As for Heikkila, it’s her 13th year with the center and her ninth as its executive director. Much in the same way that crisis centers like this one were created in the 1970s as a new way to address sexual violence in communities, Heikkila said she’s seen another “reckoning” during her time at the helm. That includes the emergence of Title IX, the federal civil rights law preventing sex-based discrimination, and high-profile cases such as those against former film producer Harvey Weinstein and former U.S. women’s national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
“I’m so honored to be a part of that, because we are on a new horizon of how our nation is dealing with sexual assault; it’s really powerful to be a part of it,” Heikkila said.