METRO EAST - Every six minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in Illinois.

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That statistic is heavy on the minds of the four full-time workers at Metro East Every Survivor Counts, a rape crisis center that serves Madison and St. Clair counties. They provide free medical and legal advocacy, counseling and support to survivors, and the organization has fought hard to stay operating.

“We care so deeply about being able to provide these services and being able to provide the support system that survivors deserve and need,” said Ella Huppert, program manager with Metro East ESC. “Hopefully, by people knowing that we’re here, they know they at least have someone that’s there to support them and believe them.”

Metro East ESC has a unique medical advocacy program. They will actually come to the emergency room where a survivor has presented and serve as an advocate during the sexual assault evidence collection kit. The medical advocate will make sure the survivor’s rights are upheld throughout the process, and they will connect survivors with additional resources. They’re also there to offer emotional support, as it can be a taxing experience.

The organization also specializes in legal advocacy, meaning they will help you through the process of filing a police report, an order or protection or whatever other legal help is needed. If an SIUE student contacts them, they will meet on campus to provide support and resources.

In addition to their advocacy work, Metro East ESC provides free counseling for survivors and significant others, whether that’s a romantic partner, a parent or another support person. They offer group therapy and art therapy as well as individual counseling. All of their services are completely free.

They also provide some educational opportunities in schools, though this has decreased slightly in the past year. Huppert explained that the organization has undergone a transformation since they were let go from A Call for Help, the organization they previously worked under.

Following the end of that partnership, the new organization Metro East Every Survivor Counts was formed through the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. But they had no funds. In January 2023, Metro East ESC was left with $11,000 in donations, enough to pay one week’s worth of salaries.

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The money ran out, but the calls kept coming. The employees of Metro East ESC didn’t want to let go of their clients; if they closed their doors, there would be no rape crisis center to serve this part of Illinois. So the employees worked without pay, for months.

“We just knew there’s too much to lose by letting it go,” Huppert said. “We’re just very mission-driven. When we were told that services weren’t going to be available for survivors, we wanted to work as hard as we could to make sure that wasn’t the case going forward. We had so many clients that we didn’t want to have to let go.”

The need is clear to Huppert, who noted they have already seen over 160 medical advocacy calls since July 2023 to the time of this writing. That’s 160 people who presented at one of ten emergency rooms in Madison and St. Clair counties in the past nine months. In that same timeframe, they’ve logged 900 counseling hours and 875 medical/legal advocacy hours, with nearly 300 clients total.

“People don’t believe around here that the issue is as big as it is. It is a huge issue,” Huppert said. “It’s happening whether you believe it or not. It’s happening around you. It’s in your town. We get it all over Madison and St. Clair; it’s not like one place has it more than another. It’s constantly happening, and you probably know someone who has been sexually assaulted.”

A gala fundraiser provided the support needed for the organization to stay open. Metro East ESC will host their second annual gala on June 22, 2024, in Belleville. There will be silent auction items and other donation opportunities available, and the Roaring 20s theme promises to be fun.

All proceeds from ticket sales and the auction will go to help survivors. With a donation, you can provide a change of clothes for people at the emergency room or fund a hotel stay for survivors who live with their abusers. The money also goes to the employees who provide 24/7 medical advocacy and crisis hotline services. You can donate online or visit the official events webpage to learn more about the gala and how to support as a sponsor, donor or attendee.

Ultimately, Metro East ESC hopes to help survivors and provide the support that so many people need. In Illinois, someone is assaulted every six minutes. But in the Metro East, you don’t have to go through that alone.

“We want to make sure that they have that support system and that people know that they can come to us and that we can be their support system if nobody else is willing to,” Huppert added. “Having that support means more than people realize. There’s victim blaming, there’s rape culture, there’s toxic masculinity. There’s a lot of that that goes around, and that deters women and men from wanting to come forward. Having a medical advocate there or having a legal advocate there makes the process a little bit easier. You always have someone that’s there to listen to you, to believe you and to support you throughout the whole entire process, which can make a complete difference.”

For more information, visit MetroEastEverySurvivorCounts.org.

Surviving a sexual assault feels lonely, but you are not alone. Read this article on RiverBender.com for information about additional local resources. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for more services, or call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.

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