Take Back the Night holds special significance this year
BY KAYLA PONGRAC
Our Town Correspondent
Take Back the Night will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. April 25 at Bottle Works—Arts on Third Avenue in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.
This event is being organized by the city’s Community Connection Team, a group of volunteers passionate about offering creative engagement within the community in order to curb and address violence and isolation.
The purpose of this event is to increase awareness of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual abuse, and all other forms of sexual violence, plus celebrate survivors.
The Community Connection Team consists of citizens and artists, as well as representatives from churches and non-profits, including: Victim Services; Women's Help Center; Beginnings; Cove Forge; YWCA; University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and YogaSong with support from the Cambria County Sexual Assault Response Team.
In the past, Community Connection Team has hosted events such as “The Vagina Monologues” and “Happiness Sprinkling Project.”
“Getting involved in this organization isn’t a requirement for any of us,” said event co-organizer Rachel Allen. “Rather, it’s a calling. Therefore, it creates a little bit of a different energy because we’re all there by choice, not by obligation. We’re all passionate about educating people, raising awareness and supporting survivors.”
This Take Back the Night international movement commenced in the 1960s; ever since, it has expanded to include events in nearly 40 countries. This year will mark the 7th year it has taken place in Johnstown.
Organizers said they believe this event hits especially close to home this year, given the recent sentencing of Johnstown pediatrician Dr. Johnnie “Jack” Barto and numerous priests in the Catholic Church who have been accused of and/or found guilty of abuse.
“We’ve been hosting this event for a while,” Allen said, “but this year, an event like this seems especially relevant and timely, with so much in the local news about Dr. Barto and the Catholic priests. People are really paying attention to and recognizing that sexual violence is something that needs to be addressed. We need to support survivors, and we need to educate ourselves. Our community really needs a lot of healing right now, and I think finding ways to support and believe and respect survivors is important. We want to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you. What can I do to support you?’”
Allen, a member of Community Connection Team and the facilitator of a local Trauma Sensitive Yoga program in collaboration with Women’s Help Center and Victim Services, is helping to organize the event alongside Stephanie Rex of Victim Services and Ava Genovese of Women’s Help Center, plus a “Take Back the Night” committee of volunteers.
“As a sexual assault counselor and advocate, something I strive for each and every day is to end sexual assault and domestic violence,” said Rex, lead counselor at Victim Services who is also a certified trauma practitioner, credentialed advocate and a member of the Keystone Crisis Intervention Team. “This event also allows the community to gain an understanding of what a victim goes through and shows how an individual goes from victim to survivor. ‘Take Back the Night’ also connects survivors with one another and encourages other victims/survivors to come forward with unconditional support.”
The free event will begin at 6 p.m. that evening with a performance by Her Harmony. In addition to Allen, the group consists of the following musicians: Leah Rittenhouse, Olivia Schlosser, Elizabeth Hunsberger, Lydia Hunsberger Shaffer and Jeanette Hunsberger.
“We have a lot of fun singing together,” Allen said, speaking on behalf Her Harmony. “We started singing together last November, and even placed in the recent ‘Johnstown’s Got Talent’ competition. We’re really excited about being part of the evening.”
After the performance, Rex will offer opening remarks, as well as point out all of the counselors in the room.
“We have counselors at the event to help those who may feel empowered to come forward and speak of their abuse,” Rex added.
Five local survivors are to share their stories.
“Hearing about the abuse first-hand is very eye-opening,” said Genovese, Community Education Specialist at the Women’s Help Center. “It is an empowering experience to hear what survivors have gone through, how they have overcome their obstacles and how they are using their own experiences to spread awareness and help others.”
Participating survivors include four women — Erika Brosig, Jennifer Goetz, Amanda Dorich, and Brooke Rush — who were abused by Barto, plus a man named Shaun Dougherty who survived clergy abuse.
Brosig is an employee of Victim Services. She serves as an example of how survivors prevail, and how some even make it their life’s mission to help their fellow survivors.
“From the moment I started working with Erika, I could see her determination to advocate for victims/survivors,” Rex said. “Erika has helped so many clients receive closure from their abuse, and I am glad that she is finally able to have some closure for herself as well.”
The event will close with a bagpipe processional and light up walk led by Jeffrey DeLisa.
“Jeffrey has joined us just about every year,” Allen said, “and we’re so grateful to him for lending his talents to this event. Weather pending, the processional and walk will begin at the Art Works building and end at the Bottle Works garden. It’s a nice way to conclude to the event, and it demonstrates how we all stand in solidarity with survivors — both spoken and unspoken.”
Food and refreshments will be available for purchase throughout the event.
“Take Back the Night” will be rounded out by an exhibit titled “What I Wore,” which is being curated by Sherri Rae, director of career services at University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an active member of Young Professionals of the Alleghenies. The exhibit is designed to counter rape culture and end victim-blaming by showing that the only person responsible for a sexual assault is the perpetrator.
“’What were you wearing?’ is a question that survivors get asked often,” Allen said, “as if the item of clothing you were wearing that day was intended to encourage someone to confront you. This question is even asked in the courts. This exhibit is going to be enlightening, and we’re grateful to Sherrie and the survivors who have provided statements to accompany the exhibit pieces.”
Art from survivors of sexual abuse from Victim Services’ Integrative Healing group, as well as the “Clothesline Project” from the Women’s Help Center, will also be on display inside the building.
Allen added that this event honors not only survivors who have spoken out, but also those who have not.
“Whether a person’s story is being told or not, the event honors the resilience of the human spirit in all survivors,” Allen said. “Spoken or unspoken, these people have remained on this planet despite having their boundaries violated and despite having doubted their self-worth because of an abuser.”
Abusers, Allen said, cause their victims a great deal of trauma.
“And I don’t think a lot of people understand the physiology behind that trauma,” Allen said. “You hear people ask, ‘Why didn’t this person come forward sooner? Why didn’t that person push the doctor’s hand away?’ There’s a lack of education when it comes to what happens in the body psychologically.
“Trauma impacts the brain and the central nervous system. By hearing victims speak, you begin to have an understanding of where they were coming from. They didn’t choose their response — their response was their response. Survivors often carry shame and guilt, and being assaulted is never their fault. What’s so great about this event is that people can be reassured that they aren’t alone. People can seek help and support and reclaim their lives.”
Allen appreciates the opportunity to help victims through her Trauma-Sensitive Yoga classes. All proceeds earned and donations given at “Take Back the Night” will benefit the continuation of these classes.
“These classes are an important tool in the recovery process and help participants regain a connection with and an agency over their bodies by focusing on regulating the central nervous system,” Allen said. “My classes are available free of charge to female survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The classes aren’t physically challenging, and we provide everything students need, including yoga mats.
“This is what I’m on this planet to do. Being able to let women know that they are worthy of existing is really powerful, and I am grateful for the experience of watching women blossom and reclaim their lives.”
Females interested in participating in Allen’s classes are asked to contact Rex or Genovese through their respective organizations.
At the event, participating organizations and agencies will offer attendees information and literature to take home. Rex added that survivors can seek help at any time, whenever they’re ready, no matter how long ago their abuse took place.
“Victim Services is the local sexual assault agency for Cambria and Somerset counties,” Rex said. “We provide confidential and free services that include: empowerment counseling, advocacy, and therapy to victims and their significant others of sexual abuse and other violent crimes. We can provide accompaniment to medical, police, and criminal justice proceedings. Our agency also offers support groups for adult survivors of sexual abuse and adult survivors in recovery.”
Genovese, of Women’s Help Center, added: “Our agency serves approximately 800 clients annually, including women, men, and children. Abuse does not discriminate. No matter the gender, age, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, religion, etc., anyone can be a victim. We want the community to be aware of what abuse is, what it looks like and their options. We also want the community to know what type of help is available to them and where to turn when in need. The more the community is educated, the more people we can help.”
Rex said that this event grows every year, and Allen mentioned that organizers are grateful that the Bottle Works—Arts on Third Avenue staff allowed them to hold the event at their venue this year. Previously, “Take Back the Night” was held at a local church, and then Flood City Café, and last year at YWCA.
“Bottle Works and Art Works are such vibrant places,” Allen said, “and Cambria City itself is full of life. Being in a space like that is therapeutic and inspiring.”
In conjunction with “Take Back the Night,” Johnstown Running Club coordinator Stephanie Daniels is helping to spearhead the 3rd annual “Take Back the Night Run.” This 3 to 5-mile run is to take place prior to the beginning of the event, beginning at 5:30 p.m. For more information about the run, visit Johnstown Running Club’s Facebook page.
For more information about the Community Connection Team, visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/CCTJohnstown.