The fifth annual Sexual Assault Awareness Walk

A community rallies to bring a serious problem out of the shadows.

More than 50 walkers participated in the fifth annual Sexual Assault Awareness Walk, on April 8 in Oak Bluffs. —Teresa Kruszewski

The beauty of the Island of Martha’s Vineyard is tarnished when we allow abuse of any kind toward our friends and families. The fifth annual Sexual Assault Awareness Walk, sponsored by Connect to End Violence, made a show of not tolerating sexual violence on the Island.

With blue skies overhead, the event kicked off at 11 am on Saturday, April 8, in Oak Bluffs with a warm welcome at the gazebo in Ocean Park. A group of more than 50 adults, children, and dogs marched along side streets to Circuit Avenue, past the harbor, and back to the gazebo. Signs hung along the walk, sharing different statistics, facts, and myths about sexual assault and sexual violence.

I spoke with a few people to find out what brought them to the walk, and many of the responses were disturbing; a little girl, not more than 5 years old, had recently been abused. Another walker, Jeannie Wright, a clerk at the Oak Bluffs Police Department, also had very personal reasons for being there. About five years ago she lost her sister-in-law and her brother as a result of violence. “They had a toxic relationship,” Ms. Wright said. “They loved each other, but my brother killed my sister-in-law and then he took his own life.” She had a close friend who lost his daughter to domestic violence when a former boyfriend took her life.

Jennifer Neary, program director of Connect to End Violence, said, “One in five women and one in 71 men will experience sexual assault other than rape in their lifetime … I think people think it’s this oasis and this paradise on the Vineyard, but the problem is present, just as it is throughout the state and throughout the country.”

Sexual abuse occurs at the same rate on the Island as it does nationally. Ms. Neary said that in the summer months, when the population on the Island increases, so does the number of abuse survivors who require services.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). The origins date back to the late 1970s, when women in England held protests against the violence they encountered as they walked the streets at night. They called them “Take Back the Night” marches.

On April 1, 2001, the U.S. first observed SAAM nationally, using a teal ribbon as the symbol for awareness and prevention. The goal of SAAM is to raise public awareness about sexual violence, and to educate communities on how to prevent it.

The walk is part of a monthlong awareness campaign on Martha’s Vineyard. Connect to End Violence has displays at all the Island libraries as well as posters on the VTA buses, to spread awareness of the services available and to educate people.

Here on Martha’s Vineyard, Women’s Support Services was formed in 1981; the name changed to Connect to End Violence in 2008. This program of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) is a domestic violence and rape crisis center and counseling program.

Heather Arpin, the education and prevention coordinator, said, “We provide free and confidential services to victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Connect to End Violence is dedicated to creating a safe, supportive environment in which people can heal and grow.”

The counselors utilize the empowerment model. “We believe all survivors are experts in their own story, and know what’s best for their situation. We support them, provide options that are available to them, and support their decision,” said Ms. Neary. As rape crisis counselors, the No. 1 thing they tell people when someone they know has been a victim is to believe them and support them, no matter what decisions they make.

Ms. Neary and her team encourage those who have been abused or know of someone who has been victimized to call the 24-hour crisis hotline, 508-696-SAFE (7233), or online at They have bilingual services available for survivors who speak Portuguese.

MVCS also provides a supervised visitation center to help families in transition experiencing issues of custody, divorce, or domestic violence. The visitation room, located in Edgartown, is a secure, structured environment for children to connect and visit with the nonresidential parent. Pam Holmlund, supervised visitation center case manager, said, “I love seeing the kids and their parents together. Hopefully having that connection retained, positive things will come out of it.”

HopeLine from Verizon collects no-longer-used wireless phones, batteries, chargers, and accessories to benefit victims and survivors of domestic violence. Donated phones are turned into valuable resources for nonprofit organizations and agencies that support domestic violence victims and survivors nationwide.

Ms. Wright has brought the Oak Bluffs Police Department and HopeLine together, setting up collection boxes at the station for an ongoing cell phone drive. Regarding her work, she said, “I hope I can do something good to help even one victim.”

The Sexual Assault Awareness Walk concluded at noon. “This is the fun part of our job,” said Ms. Neary. “Afterward, the whole team, as we’re cleaning up, we feel physically drained, but also emotionally just so full and supported by the community. That’s what keeps us going; the strength of the survivors we work with and also the support from the community. Over $600 in funds were raised that will go toward directly meeting the immediate needs of survivors in our community.”