Burlington County seeks advocates for sexual-violence victims

Contact of Burlington County seeks volunteers to be trained as confidential sexual violence advocates.

Advocates offer a range of services to victims: accompanying them to a police department to tell their story; supporting them during a court procedure, such as applying for a restraining order or reading a victim impact statement; or fielding hotline calls from individuals who may need support by phone.

Contact, a social-services organization based in Mt.  Holly, provides the designated sexual-violence program for responding to all individuals impacted by sexual assault violence in the county. It works with township police departments and four area hospitals and operates a 24/7 hotline.

Volunteers “really learn all the ins and outs of how to support somebody through these most vulnerable moments,” said Amy Derrickson, Sexual Assault Services program director. 

Twelve training sessions totaling 40 hours will be held in October to instruct new volunteers. During the sessions — some virtual and others in person — trainees will participate in role playing; learn the neurobiology of trauma; and understand legal procedures and resources, so they can explain those resources and referrals to a victim. 

“There’s many facets to what we do as advocates,” said Hadiyah Logan, Confidential Sexual Violence advocate coordinator. “It’s not just picking up the phone.” 

The program wants volunteers who are especially compassionate, sympathetic and can be good listeners.

“We just want to be that person who can be there to support them through whatever they’re going through,” Logan noted.   

The work of an advocate can be heavy, so Contact’s staff has resources in place to ensure volunteers themselves feel supported. Both Logan and Derrickson frequently check in with volunteers to talk about things they’re going through, whether in their advocacy work or their personal lives. Once a month, volunteers meet with a licensed clinical social worker so they can share experiences and collectively manage self-care models without the presence of a supervisor, Derrickson explained.    

“It’s always a team effort through all of us,” Logan added. 

Since sexual violence is an isolating experience, Derrickson said having local advocates support  impacted individuals is extremely important: “That starts to build that sense of community,” she said. “That, ‘Wow, I’m not the only one. There are other people out here.’”

The Contact program now has about 15 advocates who come from all backgrounds, from   high-school students to plumbers. Derrickson said the diversity in advocates is a strength when it comes to supporting victims, because “Sexual violence doesn’t just affect one type of person;  It affects everybody in the community.” 

During the state’s COVID stay-at-home orders, advocates transitioned to work remotely. As of last month, they are back to responding in person. 

“Every day I’m amazed by what advocates can do,” Derrickson stated. “[They] just wake up and say, ‘You know what? I have time to help somebody, and I want to help them. That comes deep from within.’”

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, phone Contact’s 24/7 hotline at (856) 600-4800 or visit ContactBurlco.org. Individuals interested in becoming Confidential Sexual Violence Advocates can apply online at ContactBurlco.org.