PERSPECTIVE: By Jamie Sivrais
Just about 10 years ago, I founded an organization called A Voice For The Innocent, a community of support for people who have been impacted by sexual violence. This year I have decided to step away, and AVFTI will be closing at the end of 2021. This decision has been looming for a while now, and it was officially made a couple weeks ago. I think I personally needed some extra time to allow the reality and weight of this decision to really set in for myself, as well as the board and the volunteers, before speaking publicly about it. This is not a conclusion that any of us have come to lightly, but I hope to give just a touch of insight as far as what led to this decision.
The idea of this organization came to me in 2009. I have my own story of childhood sexual abuse that went on for three years, and this organization was created to give an outlet to the many stories that were told to me as a result of me sharing my own. It was created to be an extension of the same community of support I’d been given when I first told my story. At the time, I was traveling around the country and playing music. I hadn’t even yet been introduced to AVFTI’s co-founder, Eric Boggs.
By the time AVFTI launched in 2012, I was working in a bookstore. It was a really wonderful job and I really liked it. The company treated the employees very well, and I was very happy there. However the work was simple. Mindless. I didn’t take it home with me. I put books on shelves, I rang people out, and I bought used merchandise from the public. When I went home, I wasn’t taking emotional baggage with me, and AVFTI was a place I found purpose. I was able to create something in my spare time that really meant something and really answered an emotional and spiritual call. We didn’t have employees or funding, so we did all of the work ourselves. We put together a small board of people who would also volunteer their time and efforts to be a working board, simply because they believed in it.
We continued pushing and growing, and I dedicated almost all of my off-work time to AVFTI for the next three years. In 2015 I was offered a job at what was then called Women’s Crisis Center – the rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter in Northern Kentucky. I was hired to work on the public education team, teaching a program called Green Dot. I’d go into high schools and talk with students about recognizing signs of power-based personal violence, and then train them how to be active bystanders when they saw violence around them. It was work that was in the same field as AVFTI, but it was so drastically different that it didn’t feel emotionally draining. Both projects felt exciting, invigorating, and very much able to coexist. They were two sides of the same coin. However, AVFTI still had no employees. It was still entirely volunteer run. And we continued to grow, as did the workload. But we kept pushing. Kept growing. Kept dedicating our personal free time and donating our personal dollars.
In early 2020, two significant things happened: a promotion and a pandemic. In January, I was promoted to Women’s Crisis Center’s communications coordinator. I was incredibly excited about this position and I had worked extremely hard to get the job. Then two months later, as we all know, COVID hit the U.S. in a big way. My two-month-old position was tasked with figuring out how to represent every one of Women’s Crisis Center’s services online. The charge was to communicate our procedures to the public to explain how we were safely continuing to keep our our domestic violence shelter open, or how we were using telehealth services to make our counseling available. Then, when the agency took the steps to rebrand from Women’s Crisis Center to The Ion Center For Violence Prevention, it was my job to lead the branding changes, write and implement the trainings, create the marketing efforts, the online campaigns, the design and video creation … all of it. I honestly loved it, but with COVID insisting that we become far more present online, suddenly the work I’d been doing with AVFTI for eight years began to feel like an extension of my job. I was coming home from mentally exhausting days at work, where I had wrestled with online campaigns centered around violence, only to continue doing that same exact work into the evening and night. My work was beginning to feel never-ending. I started to get burnt out, but I kept pushing forward. I kept thinking that, once the pandemic started to go away, maybe my burnout would too. Or once we got past the name change and rebrand at work, I’d feel a bit lighter. Or once we got funding to hire an employee or two, I could offload some work.
The unfortunate reality, I came to realize, was that I could no longer spend every waking moment only focused on work centered around violence. It was creating an insurmountable to-do list, and taking away the joy I found from my occasional hobbies, the little time I would try to spend with my family and friends, or from the rare times I did something for myself. Plus, we just never got the funding quite right in order to hire employees. There’s a hurdle that exists for nonprofits – especially young ones: It’s extremely hard to get money if you have no money. And sadly, we couldn’t find a way over that hurdle.
A couple months ago, my mental health hit a low point. The stress and anxiety I’d been carrying so long started affecting me physically. It was literally closing my throat, slowly stopping me from breathing and swallowing. The stress, anxiety, and secondary trauma of working a full-time job in violence prevention/intervention, and then volunteering another full-time job in the same emotional field, that finally made it very clear to me that I needed to let some things go, and unfortunately, I obviously can’t let my career go.
I announced to the board that I was going to step away from the organization by the end of this year, and as a result, they voted to dissolve. It’s hard. It’s a tough decision for everyone involved, and not a single person is making this choice lightly. It’s just so incredibly difficult to continue running a volunteer-run nonprofit with no employees.
I am choosing not to leave with sadness. I am so immensely proud of this organization. I am proud of the work we have done and the lives we’ve been able to impact. I am so honored to have gotten to work with our dedicated, creative and compassionate volunteer team. They are the first thing I’d brag about to anyone who would listen. The volunteer team made this organization impactful. Every success we had came from them. They made this organization work. They saved lives.
And lastly, I am so touched – so humbled to have been even a small part of people’s healing journeys. I am immensely grateful for all the storytellers who put their faith in us, who trusted us with their story, both in person and online. As survivors, it is through each other we can find strength, and that certainly has been true for me. Working with this organization – the volunteers, and talking with other storytellers – all of it helped me heal in parts of my story that I didn’t even know were still hurting. And for that, I can not thank you enough.
I quite literally have a career because of this organization. So many of the incredible people in my life are a direct result of this organization. We started working to build AVFTI in 2011, and here we are in 2021. 10 years. More than a quarter of my life. In so many ways, AVFTI has become my identity, and it’s very scary to let it go, but I firmly believe it’s time.
I am still very much entrenched in this work. It’s still my life’s purpose. I am absolutely ecstatic about the work we are doing at The Ion Center For Violence Prevention, and I encourage anyone reading this to visit ioncenter.org to learn more or email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions. We have been providing free, confidential services since 1976 to all people who have been hurt by partner violence or sexual assault. I just hope folks know that, even though A Voice For The Innocent’s door is closing, there are still so many doors wide open that aren’t going anywhere, and I am thrilled to be focusing all of my efforts on of one of those agencies. The Ion Center is here. We’ve been here. And we aren’t going anywhere.
As far as A Voice For The Innocent, I am just so grateful for my time there. Thank you for trusting us. Thank you for supporting us. Thank you for allowing us to be a part of so many stories.