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Hundreds walk in support of sexual assault survivors

The hopeful winds of change were blowing Saturday afternoon in downtown Morgantown as sexual assault survivors and supporters marched down High and Spruce streets spreading awareness of sexual assault and violence during the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center’s (RDVIC) annual Walking with Survivors event. 

While strong winds and a little rain caused brief moments of disarray, the message of the day was certainly not blown away. 

With an escort from Morgantown Police Department, a few hundred participants walked an estimated mile from the farmer’s market pavilion on Spruce Street, around Willey to High Street, then turned onto Pleasant Street and back onto Spruce to the pavilion. 

Many walkers carried signs of support and a few male participants donning heels chose to walk the “mile in their shoes.” 

Leann Williams, prevention educator and a victim advocate at RDVIC, said the event kicks off the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and is meant to bring the community together to celebrate while supporting survivors as well as the people and systems that support them. 

RDVIC, Williams explained, is a comprehensive community-based service for victims of stalking, human trafficking and sexual and domestic violence. They serve clients through peer-to-peer counseling, support groups, advocacy in medical and civil legal settings and help victims navigate these systems by giving them information and support they need on their journey. 

“The mission,” Williams said, “is to help all individuals live a life without any kind of violence. We tailor are services to the unique needs of the individuals.” 

While the Walking with Survivors event also serves as a fundraiser for the organization, it is really about making the community at large aware that sexual and domestic violence happens every day. 

“Our biggest goal is the awareness aspect of it and getting the community out here. We have all of our community partners that we work with throughout the year here to talk with them, see how they are, and also just to broaden resources,” Williams said. “That’s our biggest goal — to bring the awareness and bring resources to survivors.” 

Event emcee and Kingwood attorney Virginia Hopkins said, “I think we can all realize what it must be like to be a victim of violence. In these cases, we have individuals who are so traumatized by what is going on in their lives that it’s very difficult.” 

This year, RDVIC is also celebrating 50 years of providing support, counseling and education for individuals who have gone through this kind of trauma. Board President Marjorie McDiarmid said she has worked with RDVIC in excess of 20 years and has been able to watch the organization really grow over the decades. 

“We have grown both in services to the community and in the number of our participants,” McDiarmid said. “Unfortunately, the need doesn’t go away, so we try to meet it as best we can.” 

Hopkins said when RDVIC was started 50 years ago, the kind of services we have now were not available.  

“Sexual assault was rarely prosecuted, so you can understand how this agency that took it upon themselves – first as volunteers and now by an extremely qualified, trained staff – how they are able to change lives, change laws and make the offenses that have happened to them something that they can become stronger over,” she said. 

Event organizers were very happy with this year’s turnout for the event, saying it may have been one of the largest to date. 

“It’s great.” McDiarmid said. “I mean this is probably our best event of the year because it really turns people out from across the whole community.” 

Newly appointed Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Gabrielle Mucciola was keynote speaker for the event and said it was “kind of a full-circle moment.” 

Mucciola said she first found her passion for helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault during her time as a crisis counselor and pro-bono attorney for RDVIC from 2008-15. When she first started volunteering for the event in 2008, she said, “I was the girl that ran around town to get the pizzas for everyone.” 

Since then, Mucciola has been a champion in the fight against domestic violence specializing in sexual assault and intimate partner violence and providing numerous state and local domestic violence and strangulation training courses across West Virginia. 

In 2016, she began to train all local law enforcement on strangulation investigation, which eventually lead to the development of the West Virginia Strangulation Awareness Task Force.  

“Someone that has been strangled by their partner makes them 75% more likely to be killed by that partner,” Mucciola told the crowd during her speech. “That is something you need to take seriously, and you need speak out about.” 

Mucciola spoke on the multi-disciplinary action taken in Mon and surrounding counties that involve prosecution, advocacy, law enforcement, medical teams and other partners, who take a victim-centered approach where everyone understands the problem and responds in a way that is helpful and not hurtful. 

“It’s important when someone comes through a system, whether that be an advocacy system, a prosecution or criminal justice system it’s important that everyone that survivor is interacting with is on the same page and that each member of that team understands the role that each other provides,” she said.” 

The most important part of the team, she said, is the community who needs to speak up against domestic violence and provide support for victims and the agencies that support them. 

“If you know someone, if you have suspicions that someone is going through that sort of victimization, I want you to find the courage to speak up, and by being here today you are speaking up,” she said.  

RDVIC is always in need of funding and support because the more funding it has the better the opportunity for more services to be given.  Donations can be made directly on the website, and also through the Kroger Community and Amazon Smile programs. 

“Donations are helping to make the life of someone who has been in a very, very traumatic experience a little bit better and a little bit stronger. These survivors are never to be forgotten because they have made it and they are stronger for it,” Hopkins said. “Recognize how strong and powerful these survivors are because they have overcome in so many, many ways. The hundreds of thousands of individuals who have gotten stronger by the work of this agency. We are really appreciative of all that they’ve done.”