In a small office on Main Street, trained counselors are answering calls around the clock from victims of sexual violence.
The free 24/7 hotline managed by Pathways for Change, a nonprofit focused on addressing the impact of sexual assault and abuse, has counselors working the phones every day to provide support to victims of sexual violence.
According to the organization’s counseling director, Heidi Sue LeBoeuf, who oversees the hotline services, Pathways receives upwards of 1,000 calls per year, and the hotline itself is what sparked the beginning of Pathways for Change.
“The very first thing that came out of this agency was the hotline. It was the hotline first, and then the agency built up around it,” LeBoeuf said.
Founded in March 1973, Pathways for Change was one of the first rape crisis centers to open in Massachusetts. It serves 47 cities and towns in Worcester County.
Pathways supports victims of rape, child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation with a dozen different programs, including face-to-face peer counseling; sexual assault youth education; campus violence prevention education; group healing circles; and medical, police and court advocacy.
“We don’t want folks to feel that they have to revisit a traumatic situation in order to get support from us,” LeBoeuf said. “If you were to ask us, ‘What is the most important message to understand about the hotline?,’ it is what’s going on with you in the moment, and how can we support you with that. On top of that, it’s very confidential.”
LeBoeuf, who’s been at Pathways for Change for 16 years, said, “One thing I always try to do is see patterns in things. With patterns we can look at predictability, but there isn’t much predictability to this work. I would say one-third of the folks that we support might have had a recent experience of sexual violence.”
At any given time during the day, there are at least two counselors responsible for taking calls from anyone who needs help, as well as an additional staff person serving as backup to those counselors.
“One thing that we do see is that when we see the level of violence in the world increasing, that can sometimes be a trigger for someone who’s experienced some violent trauma.” — Heidi Sue LeBoeuf, Pathways for Change
Each counselor who answers the phone has gone through specialized training required by the state. This training prepares the counselors for the unique needs of sexual violence victims, and educates them on what kind of support is available to these victims.
During the day, counselors answer calls from the hotline directly at the office. After hours, an answering service connects callers to the hotline to one of two on-call counselors.
“Folks can call us anytime and they don’t have to give their whole story in order to justify why they’re calling. What’s important is what is going on with you right now, and we can support you with that,” LeBoeuf said.
“One thing that we do see is that when we see the level of violence in the world increasing, that can sometimes be a trigger for someone who’s experienced some violent trauma. There might be a TV show that might be a trigger — CSI, NCIS, SVU — they’re great shows, but sometimes these victims might see something on the show that triggers them.”
In the past fiscal year, Pathways received funding — in the form of grants, fees and revenue — of more than $1 million. Some of its top funders were the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Office of Victim Services, and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Safety and Security.
Some of that funding goes directly to the hotline service, which also receives funding from charitable organizations as well as private donations from individuals.
With the holiday season in full swing, the reality remains that this can be a tough time of year for many people, including victims of sexual abuse and violence.
“During the holiday season, calls can be more frequent, because sometimes the holidays serve as a reminder of families that might not have been so supportive. Because it’s the holidays, no one wants to feel bad and people can try to push the bad feelings aside because they don’t want them to show through,” LeBoeuf said.
“What we want people to know is that this is the time that people should be reaching out for support. No one wants to feel hurt, especially during the holidays.”
Twice a year, including this holiday season, Pathways for Change runs a fundraiser called “Start by Believing,” a campaign to combat victim blaming and to help people learn more about the organization’s traditional ways of supporting people. Talking about ways that they could have avoided being victimized — rather than just taking a moment, breathing, and believing — is not helpful for the person needing the support.
“The truth is, no one deserves to be or did anything to cause their victimization. Some other person made a choice to violate them. No one asked for it. So this is a message that we are hoping to spread,” LeBoeuf said.
Pathways for Change offers free and confidential support to survivors of sexual violence and to the people who support the survivors.
As part of the organization’s biannual fundraising, Worcester-area residents can expect a postcard delivered to their home with details on how to support Pathways for Change’s “Start by Believing” campaign.
If you would like to donate now to Pathways for Change’s efforts, visit JustGive.org.
If you or a loved one are a victim of sexual violence and looking for help, you can call the Pathways for Change hotline at 1-800-870-5905, visit them at 588 Main St. or find more information at centralmasspfc.org.