May 4, 2004

Students offer counseling to rape victims

For victims of sexual assault on campus, help is at hand. Volunteers for Rape Victim Advocates (RVA) offer their services to any victim who checks into an Illinois hospital and requests assistance for sexual assault.

RVA is an Illinois non-profit organization founded in 1974 by obstetrician and gynecologist Natalie Stephens, and a group of Northwestern medical school students. The organization is based on social service and social change, with the primary goal to assure that survivors of sexual assault are treated with dignity and compassion. While the RVA website espouses a goal of influencing legislation regarding survivors of sexual violence, Rebecca Steinmitz, intake coordinator for RVA, maintains that her organization is not primarily a legislative agency.

"We are a crisis center that deals directly with victims of assault," said Steinmitz, who added that the RVA's parent agency, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA), is more active on the legislative level.

Volunteers sign up for at least two 12-hour shifts per month. During their shifts, generally from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., volunteers carry pagers and are on-call for hospitals anywhere in Chicago. If a sexual assault or abuse survivor shows up in the hospital emergency room, the volunteer medical advocate provides his or her services to the survivor if the latter requests them. These services may include medical and legal advocacy, crisis counseling, and referrals for additional services.

Volunteers include both students and non-students. All medical advocate volunteers are required by RVA to go through 55 hours of training, focusing on the medical, psychological, and legal issues which survivors of sexual assault experience following an attack.

According to Steinmitz, there are about 18 volunteers who currently attend the University of Chicago, and RVA fields a total of 150 volunteers at any given time. One such volunteer is second-year in the College Lyn Lewis. One of the youngest volunteers at age 19, Lewis finished her training during winter quarter. For Lewis, this meant attending sessions on Saturdays for eight consecutive weeks. Lewis described the other trainees as almost entirely women, both students and adults.

Lewis, who described herself as having always been interested in women's issues, cited her experience of working with Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) at the University as instrumental in encouraging her to look more at issues of sexual assault.

"I have a handful of friends who have experienced one form of sexual violence or another, and I figured the training itself would be an experience," Lewis said.

Having just finished her training, Lewis has yet to be summoned by a hospital while on call. The two shifts she has worked have nevertheless been "nerve-wracking," according to Lewis.

Perhaps the greatest motivational factor for Lewis has been the desire to experience life in the South Side of Chicago outside of the sheltered University community. "I sometimes feel like we're in a bubble here, and are not in touch with a lot of the realities of living on the South Side of Chicago," said Lewis.