Olivia Lavelle became a psychological support volunteer at the Sexual Assault Treatment unit in Galway three years ago. She had completed a masters in the Psychology of Education - her thesis was on sex education - and applied for a community employment scheme position in administration at Galway Rape Crisis Centre (GRCC ). From there, she went on to becoming a volunteer with the organisation.
It was one of the best decisions she ever made. “It’s an incredibly, incredibly rewarding experience for those who do it,” says Ms Lavelle, who is originally from Tuam but now lives in Salthill. “You are trained to a certain level professionally and that impacts you positively in life. But the most important thing is the feeling you get of making a difference in the world, you get out 10 fold what you put in. I work with a team of amazing women also and we all support each other.”
She spoke out about her experience as GRCC spearheads its annual recruitment drive for support volunteers to work in the sexual assault treatment unit. The facility, one of the few in the country, opened in 2009 following a 20 year campaign by the GRCC. The centre offers co-ordinated multidisciplinary services which are provided by the gardai, health professionals and GRCC to people in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault or rape. GRCC provides vital psychological support to the SATU unit’s clients.
The volunteers being sought will receive 70 hours comprehensive training over six weekends and two evenings from the GRCC. They are on call for three shifts a month and respond to call-outs as appropriate. They will be part of a team of volunteers who receive “excellent support and supervision” ensuring best practice standards, according to the organisation which has been supporting survivors of sexual abuse and rape since 1984. It outlines that research has shown the “tremendous” difference that emotional support makes to survivors in the immediate aftermath of trauma.
“These psychological support workers are advocates for persons within the unit, someone who is there for them alone,” says Bernadette Daly, the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit services manager with the GRCC. “Volunteers can be of all ages, there is no age restriction, what we are seeking is people with some maturity.”
Their role is to provide much needed emotional and psychological support to people in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault/rape. The positions are not counselling roles - the volunteers will provide crucial psychological support preventing or limiting dissociation and re-traumatisation.
Olivia Lavelle sees her role as being the voice of the survivor of rape or sexual assault. “When I am on call I have an hour or two to get to the sexual assault treatment unit. There will be a member of the Galway Rape Crisis Centre there. The gardai and nurses are there, they are all fantastic but the whole situation can be very intimidating for the survivor. My role is to actively listen, to be there, to put control back in the mindset or hands of the person who has lost it. One of the biggest things in the case of rape or sexual assault is survivors have lost control. These people are in a state of shock and trauma, they have no idea what is happening. We are there to be their voices. Imagine what it must be like at this most traumatic time in your life....how would you answer questions? We are very invested in their healing process and supporting them at the worst time in their lives. We are almost like friends but we are not emotionally attached. We are professionally and psychologically prepared. We are there for them, we have their back, we haven’t the gardai’s or the HSE’s agenda. Our agenda is the person’s psychological wellbeing.
“Small things can make a massive difference in their healing, for example, understanding their rights, consenting to a forensic examination. It’s all about consent, they did not have consent [during the rape/sexual assault ), and now they are beginning to regain control. We tell them about the counselling the GRCC provides, we give them information, all that is empowering.”
She says people travel from as far as Donegal to avail of the sexual assault treatment unit’s services. “We are very lucky we have this service here.”
Ms Lavelle says volunteers get tremendous support from GRCC. “We have support over the phone after every case by Bernadette Daly usually. She is incredible at it, she is extremely capable. She is a super support worker. She is so amazing, she ensures we can go home after our work without carrying any of the trauma with us. She really deserves an award.”
She is urging anyone considering being a support volunteer to “absolutely go for it”. “If you would like to be there for someone in that situation the training will put you in a position for that.”
• GRCC offers a range of services to its clients that include short and long term counselling, court accompaniment, group sessions, and advocacy services.
Its services to the wider community include an education and prevention programme in secondary schools and third level colleges as well as disclosure trainings for anyone who, in a professional or volunteering capacity, is likely to receive disclosures of sexual violence or abuse.
If you are interested in making a difference in your community and would like further information on becoming a sexual assault treatment unit support worker log on to www.galwayrcc.org/satu for a comprehensive information pack and application form.