“What happened does not define you. It will be a part of your story but it will never be your entire story.”
So begins one of the anonymous letters hanging in the window of the Sage Haven Society office on Third Avenue (formerly Alberni Community and Women’s Services Society). It is a letter addressed to all survivors of sexual assault.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the Sexual Assault Response Program (SARP) at Sage Haven has launched their “Letters to Survivors” campaign to bring awareness and offer support for survivors of sexual assault. Community members are invited to drop off letters, cards and posters addressed to sexual assault survivors to Sage Haven Society throughout the month of April.
The first “Letters to Survivors” campaign took place in 2021, and program coordinator Céline Sauvé says they received almost 40 letters last year.
“This year we’re hoping for a bit more,” she said.
SARP was first launched in Port Alberni nine months ago, thanks to some provincial funding. The program’s goal is to advocate for sexual assault survivors and offer emotional support during times of crisis. Sometimes this means accompanying victims to the hospital or to the local RCMP detachment. Volunteers also provide wellness checks, safety planning and navigation for victims to help them connect to reporting options and support services.
Port Alberni’s SARP was originally funded for two years, but Sauvé said the program was recently re-funded by the province for an additional two years.
In the past nine months, SARP has responded to approximately 4.85 calls a month, and Sauvé said volunteers have provided 40 hospital accompaniments.
“Forty might seem like a small number, but those are just the ones that have been reported,” said Sauvé. “We estimate that’s less than half of what’s actually happening in our community. We’re hoping this will encourage more people to report. It’s such a new program that we didn’t expect to have this kind of uptake. But we’ve found that a lot of clients are spreading the word to their peers, especially younger clients.”
Statistics show that the majority of the program’s clients are aged 18-35, but Sauvé noted in a letter to Port Alberni city council that survivors aged 45 and up are less likely to reach out for medical or legal assistance, as the perpetrators are more likely to be a long-time partner or spouse.
The majority of clients served (60 percent) were Indigenous.
“These statistics are akin to provincial and national trends with Indigenous individuals being at the highest risk of sexual assault,” Sauvé wrote.
This year, the Ending Violence Association of BC has a pledge on their website for policy makers and community leaders to sign and become a champion for sexual assault awareness and prevention. This is why Sauvé has reached out to city council, encouraging them to take part in the campaign.
“This year, we’re hoping to get more support and acknowledgement from policy makers,” said Sauvé. “We’re wanting to see community leaders sign up and acknowledge not just the work we’re doing, but the work of our survivors.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down, Sauvé said SARP is also hoping to do a bit more community engagement this year.
Anyone interested in volunteering for SARP can call Sauvé at 250-206-2687 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sauvé says the program has about 12 volunteers now.
“We’re accepting volunteers all the time,” she said.