It is a splendid autumn afternoon, but Rebecca Eshbach knows that she could be summoned to leave the Sunday sunshine and rush to the hospital at any moment. She has been on call all weekend, but she’s neither a doctor nor a nurse. Instead, Eshbach volunteers to take on at least two, 12-hour shifts per month as part of her role as a victim advocate for The Center for Sexual Assault Survivors. She knows this important position may require her to get to Riverside Regional Medical Center at any time of the day or night to provide emotional support to sexual assault victims. She listens, counsels and comforts for 3–6 hours during their examination at the hospital and interview with the police.
“I feel like I have made a difference,” Eshbach says. “The survivors I have talked to say I have helped them a lot.”
And that feeling is exactly what has kept Eshbach committed to volunteering with The Center—a Newport News nonprofit aiming to provide support, treatment and advocacy for anyone affected by sexual or domestic violence—for almost five years when “most burn out,” she says. “It’s hands on. You are giving a part of yourself as opposed to the money in your wallet.”
Though Eshbach has been volunteering in some capacity for most of her life, she reached a point five years ago when she needed something different and out of her comfort zone, and that drew her to The Center.
“I wanted to do more than raise funds, and I felt like this would really push me,” she says. It has, and Eshbach has been dedicated since. In fact, last Friday, she was not signed up to be on call but went twice to the hospital to help.
Her commitment remains strong, but she has been told that her small talk skills may be her biggest attribute when building a bond with the victims.
“Sometimes they don’t want to talk, and sometimes they are just grateful I am there,” she says. “Sometimes they want to go over everything that happened, and others just want to talk about my cat and their dog—anything else.”
Maricella Carter, executive director of The Center, says Eshbach embodies the characteristics they hope to find in all of their volunteers. She says ideal candidates are settled into the community; mature in age, life and demeanor; have calming personalities; and are natural soothers and listeners. Of course, they also need to be trusting.
“A lot of times the victims disclose things law enforcement or the nurse didn’t know,” she says.
Because of the intense emotions involved, Carter says it’s not unusual for volunteers to drop out of the program. To ensure a victim advocate is a good fit, The Center requires that all potential volunteers take part in a mandatory, 32-hour training program. This includes lots of roleplay, bringing in a nurse from Riverside to speak, a visit to the hospital to understand the extent of the post rape/assault exam—it has to be completed within a certain amount of time—and observing how potential advocates interact and speak with others at community events.
“You could have someone that has been brutally gang raped, and you have to be emotionally ready for that,” Carter says. “If the advocate can’t handle it emotionally the perpetrator might get off. It’s a lot of responsibility, and not every personality is suited for this.”
After volunteers complete training, continuing education resumes every quarter, where advocates learn from each other and share experiences and stories.
“I sat and held his hand,” she says. “He needed a mother figure. Every time you think you’ve heard everything, you hear another story and think, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I wish there was no need for me.”
Carter has the same wish, but because she is also aware of the harsh reality of sexual assault, she relishes volunteers like Eshbach, who put their own emotions aside to care for victims in their most vulnerable state.
“These advocates have realized what it means to the person so they have better control over their emotions,” Carter says. “We remind people that it’s not about us—we are here to serve.”