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How Rape Response has adapted to helping clients during pandemic
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Executive Director Jeanne Buffington talks about the history of Rape Response in Gainesville and who benefits from the crisis center’s services. Rape Response not only provides support for sexual assault survivors, but hosts educational events to teach middle school as well as college-aged students about healthy relationships. - photo by Erin O. Smith

After the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency, Rape Response bilingual advocate Laura Rodriguez started checking in on her clients.

She found many had been laid off while others had their hours cut. Some families had both parents out of work.

“We went from having the crisis intervention where the clients are talking about trauma in their lives and what happened to them to, ‘I don’t have food. I don’t know how I’m going to make it. I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent,’” Rodriguez said. 

Rape Response’s mission is to provide support for the victims of sexual assault and their families. But the past few months for the agency have been marked by transformation and adaptation, as the nonprofit organization started working on connecting their clients with community resources to meet the emergency financial needs.

Executive Director Jeanne Buffington said they have worked with 29 different groups, including churches and nonprofit organizations in Hall County and the surrounding area.

“I believe that we have created stronger partnerships with many agencies,” Rodriguez said.

One example was a client who dropped off her two kids with a babysitter. After not feeling well at work, she went to the hospital and was informed to quarantine. The client was unable to see her kids for more than three weeks.

“This particular client normally would not need emergency financial assistance, because she had money to pay for rent (and) all of that. But then she had those weeks when she was having to pay child care 24/7, so money that she had set aside for those other things was going to pay for child care. We were really blessed to be able to reach in there and help her to get back on her feet,” Buffington said.

The client has been able to return to work and is doing better, according to Rape Response.

“This is outside our typical role, and to be able to do that I feel like facilitates healing in their lives at a lot of different levels,” Buffington said.

Buffington said she feels these partner organizations now have “so much of a better understanding about how we work with survivors of sexual assault that that is going to open doors for survivors to reach out to us.”

Rape Response — which serves six Northeast Georgia counties — has continued offering the same services during the coronavirus outbreak, which include a 24-hour crisis line, crisis intervention, counseling and other programs. The only change has been the in-person service for the forensic medical exams.

“(The sexual assault nurse examiners) call and reach out to us, and we get the information. They make sure it’s OK with the patient that we follow up,” Buffington said.

The nonprofit recently added a live chat feature on its website so advocates can communicate with sexual assault survivors and others. Buffington said the service has been funded for a year through a grant.

Buffington said they have already had people reach out through the website’s live chat.

Advocacy director Jen Tarnowski said six staff members are trained so far, aiming to have a handful of advocates logged in at a time. The service is currently being monitored between 8 a.m.-6 p.m. each weekday. 

Tarnowski said the agency is also increasing its presence on social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to reach a younger generation that might not be aware of their services.

“Now we’re really reaching out a lot more often as well as the content. We’re talking about how sexual assault survivors can care for themselves ... spotlighting some of our services that they might not know about and what those services look like,” Tarnowski said.