Hearts Of Hope
Jill Dugas, from left, and Anne Cunningham with Hearts of Hope.
By Barbara Gautreaux
Anne Cunningham has been given the nickname “Annie” by her coworkers at Hearts of Hope. Always upbeat and willing to lend a hand, Cunningham has worked with victims of sexual violence for more than 15 years. “Annie fits her because she is always in a good mood, she doesn’t let anything bring her down,” says her supervisor, HOH Executive Director Jill Dugas. Dugas herself has been working serving the same clientele for 14 years, and is just as cheerful, as positive and appealing as Cunningham.
HOH is a nonprofit organization that responds daily to those affected by sexual violence, providing education, advocacy and empowerment. The volunteers, therapists and family advocates give free and confidential help to people in eight parishes of Acadiana, including New Iberia.
Formerly known as Stuller Place (and years ago as the Rape Crisis Center) HOH serves all ages, male and female victims, their families and first responders. Today, HOH includes the Children’s Advocacy Center, the Sexual Abuse Response Center, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners. The organization assists victims of sexual violence by providing short term counseling, prosecution support and specialized forensic exams so offenders can be brought to justice.
Lafayette Consolidated Government is a supporter of the work done by HOH, announcing that without HOH expertise, rape forensic evidence collection would go back to the way it was done in the 1970s.
Dugas and Cunningham say that working in a service where hurt families walk through the door hour after hour can be stressful. Like the evening news on TV, their day can be one bad story after another. How do they not only cope but flourish, providing support for coworkers, and giving the best possible care to those who need it most? By facing human needs as a team, using skills that others can learn to move to a better place.
Helpful Hints To Keep Up Moral
Eleven employees work at HOH, and four are part-time. Dugas says this group of workers is the bare minimum they need to provide mental health care services for Lafayette victims and their families. HOH statistics indicate a rape occurs every three days here, generally eight to10 a month. Some months are better; some worse, with a rape occurring every 24 hours.
Cunningham explains that if a child age 2-17 has disclosed sexual abuse or if there is high suspicion, a report is made by law enforcement or child protection agencies. Those agencies schedule the child’s interview with HOH. Not only is the child seen by a therapist, but the parents are too. “I encourage them to come for counseling,” she says. “We talk about the court process in the event that the case does go to court. Some of them breakdown, and cry, and that is my opportunity to stop and comfort them. At first, everybody is concerned about the child, but the parents are also in crisis.”
The staff at HOH meets weekly to prepare for their full schedule, which includes preparing statements and making a video tape of a child’s statement, escorting victims, a 24-hour crisis line, awareness education in schools throughout Acadiana, and coordinating and tracking efforts of the professional multidisciplinary team that includes law enforcement and district attorneys. By consolidating care for children, families and adult victims under one roof, services are not duplicated, and instead of talking to a dozen administrators, the victims only have to talk to one. “We are the complete package for victims of sexual assault,” says Dugas. “HOH is the one stop for victims of sexual violence and it would be terrible not to have it.”
HOH’s Monday morning staff meeting is a chance for everyone to have a say in what they are accomplishing and facing. They discuss issues with cases that are worrisome, asking for advice and guidance from the therapists, from Director Dugas, and others with years of experience.
“Our staff meetings on Mondays are our opportunity to vent. Jill, as our director, gets to hear what is going on in our work week. She hears everything and she helps us, guides us, and gives us input. We all learn from each other and it gives us a time to get some healing from our therapists too, and they get it from us as well,” says Cunningham.
Says Dugas, “Then, at the end of our meetings, we always try to end on a positive note. That is actually written on the agenda; ‘end on a positive note.’” According to Dugas, a supervisor must remember to praise employees for the work they have done, just as they need to guide them if they are doing something wrong. To bring positive attention to a staffer that has done an outstanding job during the previous week, Dugas awards the “You Rock” award, which is an actual rock.
“It started out as a regular rock with a heart on it, and now the winners have decorated it,” says Dugas. “This is about all we can afford, because we can’t buy things or give people money, so we award a rock. It has been pretty funny.”
Cunningham says Dugas continually supports her staff and gives them feedback on their good ideas. “It is nice when your director notices things like that.”
The Hearts of Hope supporters know what the goal of all this hard work is and that focus keeps everyone going strong. Says Cunningham, “We all do our part—law enforcement, Department of Children and Family Services, prosecutors. Knowing that we have all these agencies and people working together for the benefit of our client is powerful.”
HOH staffers may cry or get angry but they soon get their focus back and fulfill their professional duties.
“It warms my heart knowing that I am on the journey with our clients. We give them empowerment, support and education,and let them know that they are not alone. We are together on this journey. It is just really good to see them move through counseling. When they first come in they are scared; Moms and Dads are scared, and they just want to protect their little ones. And when they leave, their shoulders are high, their hearts are happier. They are in a much safer place than they were before, and it’s because we helped.”
HOH trains police officers who may be first responders during times of crisis. Cunningham has also done training at the Police Academy. The policy makers at HOH have instituted a mental health checkup for employees by staff therapists to make sure everyone is providing complete care. They anticipate problems and have a plan to deal with them.
Trust Your Instincts - Protect The Children
Giving sexually abused children a voice is one of the goals of HOH. Through counseling, advocating and education,the trained staff has answers for communities searching for answers to how sexual abuse could happen in their homes, schools or organizations. “When parents—adults in general—don’t know what to do, they look on and do nothing,” warns Dugas.
HOH is educating adults through a program called “Stewards For Children.” The 2 ½ hour class has participants watching a video, and being shown behaviors that are suspect, then how to address the wrongs.
“People say they don’t know what to do and this program is giving them the okay to do something. They can learn to save someone’s life, and to protect the children,” she says.
Says Cunningham, “We put a protective barrier around our emotions, where this is our own little world and nothing bad is going to happen to it. But it does. It happens a lot.”
A 24-hour Rape Hotline is available by calling (337) 233-RAPE (7273). Visit www.theheartsofhope.org for information on how to request help or to donate time or money. Several fundraisers benefit HOH, including the Acadiana Culinary Classic that will be Oct. 8, and the Walk A Mile In Her Shoes event, held during April. Call 269-1557 for tickets.