Silver medalist spotlights sexual assault awareness –
Story and photos by Patricia Beech –
Olympic athlete Margaret Hoelzer has a simple message for victims of sexual assault – “you are not alone”.
“I was abused as a child,” she says matter-of-factly. “But I’m a survivor, and you can learn how to be a survivor too.”
It is a deeply personal message for Hoelzer – an American swimmer, silver medalist, bronze medalist, and former world-record holder who competed in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic games.
She shared her story at the 4th Annual “Sexual Assault Awareness Month” (SAAM) event held Thursday, April 6 at the North Adams Elementary School in Seaman.
“After the 2008 Olympics I wanted to go public with my story, and I wanted to use being an athlete as a platform,” she says. “At the time I had a sports agent and he set me up with a reporter from the Associated Press and I did an interview. I honestly thought that was going to be it, but people began reaching out to me asking if I’d come speak at their events.”
Hoelzer has since become a public speaker on child abuse issues and she serves as the national spokesperson for the National Children’s Advocacy Center. She has also received the “Voice of Courage” award from the Darkness to Light child advocacy services.
For more than eight years she has traveled across America working with victim advocates to raise awareness about sexual assault.
“This isn’t a field people go into because it’s a happy, fuzzy subject,” she says. “There are amazing people who work in this field and want to give back to their communities – it sounds cheesy, but they make the world a better place.”
The annual SAAM event is sponsored by the Adams and Brown County Prosecutor offices, the Adams Crime Victim Assistance Program, and victim advocates Kim Newman and Jessica Roush. Their purpose – to raise awareness about sexual assault.
“We do this so people know there’s hope in healing,” Newman says. “We get a lot more calls after events like this from people reaching out, and we’ve got disclosures many times at this event because people feel safe here, they know they’ll be believed, and there’s hope so they reach out and disclose what happened to them.”
Adams County Prosecutor, David Kelley agrees: “The SAAM event offers a refuge for victims of sexual assault by giving them a safe place where they know others understand their experience,” says Kelley. “There are people here who believe them, who care, and are here to share.”
Kelley further emphasizes the importance of sexual assault awareness in preventing a crime he says “does not always leave a visible mark.”
“People are more aware now, but when I was growing up in the 60’s you didn’t talk about it, there was no help, no victim advocates, and people’s unwillingness to believe the victim meant perpetrators were allowed to escape unpunished for decades,” he said. “In today’s society people want CSI, they want DNA evidence, but if someone touches you inappropriately, the mark they leave is almost always invisible.”
While education and awareness have made significant strides in changing people’s attitudes about sexual assault, they have also more importantly impacted how sexual assault cases are handled in our courts.
“We start by believing,” Kelley says without hesitation. “We don’t challenge the victim, we take them as they are, and we investigate the case – thoroughly. Sexual assault is a crime of power over someone else, so I try to empower victims to set the pace, and when they’re ready to be in a confrontational courtroom setting, we will bring charges. It’s a victim oriented, a victim-driven process.”
Several other community organizations and agencies also participated in the SAAM event including: FRS Counseling, Stewards of Children, the Mayerson Center from Childrens Hospital, the Adams County Regional Medical Center, ABCAP, Shawnee Mental Health, and Women Helping Women.
“We invite several different organizations so people will know what resources are available to victims,” Roush says. “It allows us to reach more people in the area.”
The event also featured Zumba and Yoga class, a silent auction with more than 40 items donated by individuals and businesses, and a raffle which offered a wide variety of gift cards and admission tickets for the Newport Aquarium, the Freedom Center, Coney Island, and a Cincinnati Reds game.
This year, the SAAM campaign motto is “Engaging New Voices”, and the focus is on involving coaches, faith leaders, parents, and bystanders in preventing sexual assault. While many people know about sexual assault and believe it is a problem, they don’t know how they can help.
Victim advocates work tirelessly to fill that gap by providing access to information that educates and helps prevent sexual assault – now and in the future.
“Every generation learns anew, and every generation builds on the one that comes before,” says Kelley. “The work we do now forms the foundation for what our children will do as adults to prevent sexual abuse in the years to come.”