Inside Sherman Methodist Church on the corner of Ridge and Noyes, the motivated young staff of Porchlight Counseling Services works tirelessly to connect with college campuses in Chicagoland and influential community members around them in their efforts to tackle one of the most serious, under-addressed problems facing students pursuing higher education.
“One in four women experiences sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during college,” reads a bright pink flyer designed by a female marketing student at Columbia College who volunteered her services to Porchlight Counseling Services. An orange poster reports that “one in six men will be sexually assaulted in his lifetime.”
Evanston, whose appreciation of higher education is illustrated by the statistic that less than 10 percent of the population over 25 years old lacks a college education, seems a natural base from which to organize efforts to create safer educational environments.
Porchlight Counseling Services, a not-for-profit corporation with a small board of directors, exists “to help college sexual assault survivors achieve healing and wholeness and to create a world in which a person’s life is not defined by the devastating experience of sexual assault.”
The organization was founded in 2004 by a group of community members concerned about the high incidence of sexual assault among college students. These individuals partnered with a psychologist and conducted a study which revealed that many college students did not seek the services they needed after experiencing sexual assault because they feared their peers would see them going into the college counseling office.
To ensure confidentiality for this underserved population, Porchlight Counseling Services provides off-campus counseling, advocacy and other services to male and female college students who have been victims of sexual assault either before or during college. Services are also provided to adults who are no longer in college but who were assaulted while they were in college or graduate school.
Porchlight Counseling Services aims to “[provide] high-quality, long-term counseling and services at no charge to the client as quickly as possible in order to help the sexual assault survivor heal and get on with life.” The organization also provides community education around the issue of college assault.
The work of Porchlight Counseling Services is not without its frustrations, as the uncomfortable topic of sexual assault on campus is one that people are often reluctant and sometimes unwilling to discuss.
Executive director Laura Sabino says of college sexual assault that “the ramifications of acknowledging [it] affect interpersonal relationships” and, further, the fact “that in the society there are places that women are allowed to go and not allowed to go has huge implications for the idea of equality in higher education.” Ms. Sabino, who has 11 years experience as an executive director and specializes in helping grassroots organizations increase their ability to deliver services, explains the severity of this problem, saying that “the fear of rape restricts what women do, where they go, and how they exist in the world … Women will never achieve equality in society until they can be free from the threat of violence.”
This year, Porchlight Counseling Services received a grant from Americorps VISTA that has made it possible to hire five new staff members. This has resulted in an increase in community outreach efforts. VISTA worker Kelsey Telega, an outreach specialist, provides a link between Porchlight Counseling Services and local colleges as well as the larger community. She educates people about sexual assault with presentations to student groups, faculty members3 and students living in campus housing.
On her role at Porchlight Counseling Services, Ms. Telega states, “I am here to create a constant presence at universities, so that if someone needs our services, they will know, right away, where to seek help.”
Megan Chuhran recently began her work at Porchlight Counseling Services as an outreach specialist to various colleges. She will use her experience as a teaching assistant in creative writing courses to facilitate workshops that use creative writing as a tool to heal the wounds of sexual assault. Ms. Chuhran believes her work will “encourage openness and discussion, so that the community can deepen its understanding of, and take responsibility for, violence against women.” Ms. Churan hopes to end the silence and ignorance surrounding the issues of sexual assault which she describes as “the perfect environment in which sexual assault, and the isolation and shame of the victim, thrive.”
The majority of the Porchlight Counseling Services’s clients are and have been from the north side of Chicago, and the earliest work in community outreach was directed towards the northern suburbs and the north side of the city. Evanston, which is known for the community involvement of its citizens, has provided the organization with many compassionate volunteers and donors. Currently, Porchlight Counseling Services is especially in need of volunteers with experience in the fields of marketing and advertising to help with projects such as redesigning their web page, as well as volunteers who may be prospective board members. To volunteer or make a donation, call Laura Sabino at 847-864-1557 or e-mail her through the organization’s web page: www.porchlightcounseling.org. Potential clients seeking services can call the helpline at 773-750-7077.