Thursday, March 30, 2006

How The Awareness Center got started

How The Awareness Center, Inc. Got Started
© (2003, revised 2006) The Awareness Center, Inc.

One of the most common question asked is “How did The Awareness Center get started?"

The original concept came to Vicki Polin back in the 1980's when she was working for one of the first organizations developed to address incest and other forms of childhood sexual abuse.

The organization would get calls from Survivors of childhood sexual abuse from all over the world. Vicki’s job was to help them find a therapist, therapy or self-help group, dentist or medical doctor, attorneys, etc., who had experience working with sexual victimization issues.

This was no easy task back then. The organization didn't have a computer, let alone a typewriter. The office was the size of six bathtubs lined up together.

Advocacy for sexual violence survivors was still in its infancy, definitely back in the dark ages. Its hard to believe that Vicki could accomplish the goal of finding resources for survivors using a good atlas, a card file, pen and paper.  

There was a serious problem though. Vicki had an extremely difficult time finding resources for survivors who were Jewish. All too often when survivors called, they would disclose that when they went to their rabbis for help, they would be met with disbelief. Needless to say Jewish Survivors often felt shamed for their disclosures.

During the 1980’s most of the original self-help groups had a Christian tint to them. Vicki wasn't religious, had no affiliation, yet she felt extremely uncomfortable referring Jews to these groups.  

She recollects speaking to one of the board members of the organization, and was allowed to create a "Special Interest Group" (SIG) for Survivors who were Jewish. It was basically a pen-pal group via snail mail (this was the days before the Internet). The SIG helped, but it definitely wasn't the solution.

Over the years Vicki kept suggesting to various mental health professionals and rabbis that there needed to be an organization that addressed sexual violence in Jewish communities, but nothing developed. Vicki really expected someone else to create an organization like The Awareness Center.

Late in 1997, due to injuries to both her feet and hands (which were in braces and casts), Vicki found herself using the Internet to communicate with the outside world. This went on for a three-year period. During much of this time period Vicki was unable to hold anything, including a telephone. She was fortunate enough to have enough movement in her fingers, that allowed her to type. Needless to say, she found herself online a lot.

Vicki ended up finding long lost friends and relatives, including a cousin with whom a friendship developed. Her cousin saw her going into a new age chat room and got upset. Vicki’s cousin dealt with her feelings by sending Vicki a link to a Jewish chat room on AOL. Vicki always jokes “I guess you can say that's when my Jewish learning began, and why I often refer to myself as a Cyberian Jew.”

Starting in 1998, Vicki was volunteering time hosting chat discussions on AOL in the Jewish Community on line. One of those chats included a sort of self-help group for Jewish Adult Survivors of childhood sexual abuse and those who work with them. During that time she also started an E-group at Yahoo to keep individuals updated on what was happening in the sexual trauma field that targeted the Jewish Community.

Vicki's Jewish education slowly moved off the Internet and on into reality. In 1999 she spent some time at a women's yeshiva in Israel, coming back to Chicago, then a little over a year later moving back to Jerusalem, and then on to Baltimore, MD.

Upon returning from Vicki's first trip to Jerusalem, she started updating and changing her old web page that focused on her private practice to an organization that addressed sexual violence in Jewish Communities around the world.

After moving to Jerusalem, Vicki started sending out networking e-mail's, telling people about the new organization that was developing and also a call for help. Her efforts paid off, and that was how contact was originally made with several members of original board. 

The original plan was to develop an international conference on sexual abuse/assault in Israel. Due to health issues Vicki was forced to return to the States. The idea of the conference and organization would have to be put on hold. 

As things gradually progressed, The Awareness Center began to develop various e-mail networking and self-help groups for professionals, rabbis, adult survivors and family members (both of survivors and offenders).

Within months of Vicki's move to Baltimore, a journalist from the Baltimore Jewish Times contacted The Awareness Center, and featured us in a story. A few months later we were mentioned in the Washington Post and the New York Jewish Times. Once that happened, we really began to help survivors of sexual violence have a voice.

Today The Awareness Center, Inc. is a nonprofit, tax exempt organization. Our focus is on education and referral. We offer several different on line networking groups for professionals and rabbis, a daily newsletter, and various self-help networking groups for survivors, family members of sex offenders, and parents of sexually abused children. We also offer a speakers bureau, and about to launch our first in person self-help group for Jewish Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault in the Baltimore area. 

Our web page provides everything you can think of that relates to healing, treating offenders, helping family members (of both survivors and offenders), networking; and most importantly, educating our communities on the ramifications of sexual violence, and ways of making changes.

Once we obtain the needed funding, The Awareness Center will be starting our educational, certification program for rabbis as a way of providing the information they need to better serve their communities. We will be also hosting an international summit/conference to bring rabbinic leaders, medical and mental health professionals, legal and law enforcement officials, parents, and survivors, together so that we can begin discussing the issues and start the healing process our communities desperately need.

The power of the Internet really amazes me. With just the click of a button, a small group of people CAN very easily change the world.

Learning to make a web page, and getting that web page into a search engine can lead to helping individuals, families and a community heal. If it not for the Internet, The Awareness Center would not be what it is today. We would never have met so many truly inspiring individuals.

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