Laurel Center aids victims of sexual assault, abuse through free services

FRONT ROYAL – “Empowering people to live a life free from violence” defines the mission of The Laurel Center, an organization that provides counseling and advocacy intervention services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Sexual assault program coordinator Leslie Hardesty said the center came to Warren County after the closure of Harmony Place when a gap in domestic and sexual violence services was brought to their attention.

“During the same period the Phoenix Project came into existence, the Department of Criminal Justice Services approached the Laurel Center and asked the agency to provide services in the county,” Hardesty said.

Since 2014, the Laurel Center has provided shelter for 116 women and children, totaling over 612 nights; aided 532 individuals through its hotline service; provided 363 people with sexual assault services; 85 survivors have been provided court or legal advocacy services.

“We do so much for the community that people aren’t necessarily aware of,” Hardesty said. “Our goal is to educate as many individuals as we can. Warren County as a whole has done a wonderful job in promoting and supporting our cause.”

Services the center provides includes a 24-hour confidential hotline, individual counseling for adolescents and adult sexual assault survivors, therapy services for child sexual assault survivors, support groups, secondary survivor groups and non-offending caregiver groups, court advocacy and accompaniment, hospital crisis response and accompaniment, and violence prevention programming in schools and non-traditional settings, as well as law enforcement and first responder training. All the services are free.

EmiLeigh Whitehouse, the center’s sexual assault child therapist, said when she works with children and hears their stories, it can be heartbreaking.

“But then they surprise you by smiling and playing with balls,” she said. “It’s incredible and amazing to see them work through the trauma and pain they’ve endured. And yet, they are still children. They’re not diminished or tarnished. They grow from it.”

Hardesty said she is n awe at the resilience of sexual assault survivors and domestic.

“It always amazes me what the human spirit can withstand,” she said, adding that it keeps her going.  “We hear a lot of awful things through the work we do. But even when we hear the worst that humanity has to offer, we see the best that humanity has to offer when a victim starts to heal.”

Women, in general, are super strong beings, and children are super resilient, Hardesty said, adding, “When he or she is empowered and we see the light bulb go on and they realize they don’t have to tolerate that kind of behavior, or this wasn’t my fault. Someone one did this to me. But I can move on.”

Men are also diminishing the stigma by breaking their silence about sexual assault.

“We’ve aided 37 men in Warren County and Winchester in the last year,” Hardesty said. “It’s a great thing to see more and more men stepping forward wanting to share their stories.

“If we did it just for the stories, many of us wouldn’t be here,” Hardesty said. “What keeps me here, because I can’t speak for everyone, is the courage and resilience the survivors share.”

The center collaborates with many local organizations in and around the community including the Phoenix Project,  the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Warren County Sheriff’s Office, Samuel’s Public Library and Department of Social Services.

The Laurel Center is located at 437 S. Royal Ave., Front Royal.