Staff member helps put friends of sexual assault victims on their own roads to recovery

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Angela Esquivel, a coordinator in the Center for Student Engagement, said after she was sexually assaulted at age 14, her family and friends didn’t know how to react, and some didn’t believe her. Those experiences prompted her to launch a support organization for family and friends of survivors.

As a counselor for the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, Angela Esquivel’s line was flooded with calls from friends, family members and roommates of sexual assault survivors. Most of the time, she knew exactly what to say.

Esquivel – now a coordinator at GW’s Center for Student Engagement – lived through two sexual assaults, her freshman year of high school and again in college, and knows firsthand how friends and families can help, or hinder, survivors as they try to heal.

Her experiences as both a survivor and an advocate inspired her to launch the As One Project, which focuses on “supporting the supporters,” she said. Sometimes that means offering an avenue for individuals to share their experiences and other times, helping them lobby for legislation on the federal level.

“There’s a lot of ways that people who aren’t directly experiencing a trauma but who are involved in the response can have needs and emotions of their own that need support,” said Esquivel, who came to GW in 2010.

She hopes to work with family and friends who are referred from local groups like the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“We want to have a very robust website that people can come to and feel like the questions that they have in their mind are ones that are already out on the page,” Esquivel said.

She said she wants to help victims cope with tough situations she remembers too well from her own experiences: After her first assault at age 14, she said friends and family members were confused by the incident, and many didn’t know how to respond. Others didn’t believe her story.

Several years later, Esquivel was forced to restart the healing process, after she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a classmate at the University of Southern California.

Esquivel, who also teaches human sexuality in the School of Public Health and Health Services, said she received much more support after her second attack, which made all the difference.

“I felt like people believed me and heard me and were there for me, and weren’t trying to force me to do anything one way or another. They just really were presenting options to me,” she said.

Hilary Lyons, a close friend from college, drove Esquivel to the Santa Monica-UCLA Rape Treatment Center in 2006 after her assault, and she continued to support Esquivel throughout her recovery.

“When you’re not the primary victim, sometimes it’s hard to let your friends kind of process things in their own way because you just want to fix them, you know, instruct them that this is going to make you feel better and we need to do this and this, and I stepped back and let Angie tell me how she was feeling,” Lyons said.

Lyons sat with Esquivel in a waiting room, and a police officer interviewed Esquivel. But Lyons said no one was there to support her as well.

“I didn’t feel like it was my place to talk to other people about what Angie was going through. Having that third party to be a sounding board I think would’ve been helpful,” she said.

The idea for the As One project arose about two years ago just as the Jerry Sandusky scandal was ripping through Penn State University, the alma mater of Esquivel’s close friend Teri Rosenberg, who is now a student affairs administrator at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

The pair met while working at the University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center. Rosenberg said she and Esquivel began to research resources dedicated to friends and family members, and found “that nothing like that existed.”

“Overall, our goal is to become a go-to resource for friends and family members,” Rosenberg said. “There’s all these sorts of people that could be peripherally affected by sexual violence. And to establish some sort of allied group, that would be helpful.”

The duo will spread the word about the organization’s mission at an annual conference for higher education administrators in March. They also hope to gain official status as a nonprofit organization this spring.

Professionals, including graphic designers, web developers and attorneys, have so far contributed to the project for free.

Esquivel hopes to ultimately establish chapters in D.C., New York and beyond that can be self-sustaining through fundraising. One day, she said the group may be able to offer counseling as well to help people confront what she called an endless healing process.

“I’m still healing,” Esquivel said. “There’s never a point of arrival. There’s still good days. There’s still bad days. But it’s something that, in some ways, I have seen so much good come out of it that I can’t imagine my life without those experiences.”

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