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Stepping up to the challenge

Agency asks locals to join fight against sexual assault

COLUMBUS —Though the issue is still often discussed behind closed doors in quiet whispers across the country, one local agency is looking to bring the conversation surrounding sexual assault into the light of day next month.

In April, area support organization Steps to HOPE will recognize national Sexual Assault Awareness Month by sponsoring its version of The Clothesline Project, to bring the topic of sexual abuse in the community to the forefront. From now through Thursday, people are invited to stop by Steps to HOPE’s office at 60 Ward St., Columbus, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to decorate a T-shirt that will be on display in the community to raise awareness of the issue.

There is no cost to participate in the program, as Steps to HOPE has purchased the materials and T-shirts for people to decorate.

Several people have already stopped by the Columbus office to create shirts for the upcoming display, said Paula Ravan, the public relations representative with Steps to HOPE. Among the messages on these shirts include “Don’t be afraid of your story, it will inspire others,” and “Yes means yes, no means rape.”

“People are free to decorate the shirts however they please, as long as it is kept family friendly,” Ravan said.

This is the first year that Steps to HOPE has participated in The Clothesline Project, which was started in 1990 by activists living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to raise awareness for women who were killed by their partners. Over the years, the project has expanded throughout the world to inform others about violence against women.

The subject of sexual assault is particularly important to Steps to HOPE, which supports victims of both sexual and domestic abuse, two problems that are linked hand-in-hand, Ravan said.

“Around the country, forever, there has been a stigma [around sexual assault],” she said. “Victims feel they have something to be ashamed of. People don’t talk about it, but it needs to be [discussed]. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not the victims’ fault. It happens more than anyone realizes, in this area and across the country.”

Steps to HOPE offers a number of services to victims of sexual and domestic abuse, including its safe shelter in Columbus. The agency also offers a 24-hour hotline, courtroom advocacy, forensic interviews and community outreach efforts.

The organization also owns and operates downtown Columbus’ Second Chance Thrift Store, which generates much of the agency’s operating capital. Second Chance, located at 232 E. Mills St., will also have a display for Sexual Assault Awareness Month inside the store.

Ravan and others with Steps to HOPE want to have as many people from the community come together to participate in The Clothesline Project, to show their support for those who have suffered at the hands of an abuser.

“It doesn’t matter whether they are a victim or know a victim, or have empathy for their plight,” Ravan said. “Anyone who cares should come in and decorate a shirt.”

For more information, people may contact Steps to HOPE at 828-894-2340 or visit www.stepstohope.org.