Laurel Center recognizes sexual assault awareness month with 386 flags

Laurel Center staff members Amy Fowler, left, a sexual assault victim advocate, and Kelliann Harris, right, a sexual assault counselor and advocate, kneel in front of a display of flags that represent 386 victims The Laurel Center has represented since 2014. This display is outside the Warren County Courthouse. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – The Laurel Center Intervention for Domestic and Sexual Violence planted 386 flags last week at the Warren County Court House on Main Street to honor and remember sexual assault victims in Front Royal and Warren County over the past four years.

Leslie Hardesty, sexual assault program coordinator, said part of the role of the agency is to bring public awareness through visual displays while empowering people to live life free from violence.

“Sexual assault does not discriminate,” Hardesty said. “The flags are symbolic of the individuals who have come forward and received aid. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends. Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault.”

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This annual campaign that began in the late 70s as ‘Take Back the Night’ and is now known as ‘Sexual Assault Awareness Month’ was designed to bring awareness to sexual assault and educate those in the community on its prevention.

“I think the Laurel Center still has a really negative stigma to people who disclose sexual assault or talk about sexual assault,” said Kelliann Harris, sexual assault counselor and advocate. “I think it gives a great visual representation to the community of what’s really taking place in their community instead of just reading a number online.”

In 2017 63 adults and 21 children came forward and received aid through The Laurel Center in Warren County. 184 hotline calls were answered and 10 Warren County residents received 184 nights of shelter.

“It’s not an easy to go through,” Hardesty said. “To tell a stranger your story about something very intimate that happened to you. And to give details of that. When people walk through our doors we’re strangers to them. And the fact that they trust us, at any point, to have them tell us their stories really is an honor and a privilege.”

The group said they decided on the grounds of the courthouse because it’s a center base for the community. Not only do people walk up and down Main St., on a daily basis but also it’s a community gathering spot bringing all walks of life together.

“There are so many people in Warren County that are collaborating to help end sexual assault,” Harris said. “We’re fortunate enough to be part of a great group of individuals who want to see that change.”

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, SAAM designated this year’s theme as ‘Embrace Your Voice’ to inform individuals how they can use their words to promote safety, respect and equality to stop sexual violence before it happens.

Residents of Warren County who are victims of sexual assault or want to support those who have been will have an opportunity to embrace their own voice 7 p.m. on Saturday April 21 at the first Candlelight Vigil at the town gazebo.

“We wanted to empower survivors to speak. There’s a lot of shame and guilt that comes with being a survivor,” Hardesty said. “Having a public forum, not only draws attention to sexual assault but it allows people to find their own voice. The more we talk about it publicly and matter-a-fatly the more people will realize it’s OK to speak out. It’s OK to stand up and say ‘this wasn’t my fault’ or ‘this is not OK.”

The candlelight vigil will include poetry, songs, speakers and a proclamation from Front Royal’s mayor Hollis Tharpe proclaiming April as Sexual Assault Month in Warren County.

“This is a strong depiction of the hard truth,” Harris said. “The most important thing we want people to know is that we’re here. And we can help.”

The Laurel Center provides many services to Warren County residents that include a 24-hour hotline, support groups, violence prevention programming in schools and non-traditional settings as well as law enforcement and first responder training.

“Letting people know by these numbers, allows them to realize how it affects their community,” Hardesty said. “Any survivor would know that they are not alone in their story. Even though their story may be unique, they are not alone.”

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

Correction: Leslie Hardesty, sexual assault coordinator clarified Kelliann Harris’ quote “I think there is a still a really negative stigma surrounding sexual assault.”

Correction: Mayor Hollis Tharpe is proclaiming April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Warren County.