When a victim advocate from Indiana did a Google search of “24-hour victim advocacy center,” the results pointed her to Summit County.
Shannon Edwards reached out to Leanne Graham, executive director of the Victim Assistance Program, and then traveled to Akron last week to get a closer look at the agency.
Edwards was impressed — and now hopes to take what she learned back to her hometown in Elkhart, Indiana, near South Bend, to expand the services currently offered there to crime victims.
“I feel like I can help a victim heal a lot quicker,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “I want to model my program after what the Victim Assistance Program in Akron does.”
Edwards, an advocate for two years with the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office, has first-hand experience with the services offered to victims in her hometown. She was sexually assaulted in 2001 by a stranger who broke into her home. Her attacker was in Columbus, Ohio, on similar charges when his DNA was matched to Edwards’ rape kit. He was sentenced in 2007 to 40 years in prison.
Edwards’ next personal brush with crime happened in April 2017 when her 21-year-old stepson was shot and killed. No one has been charged for this incident.
Edwards said she went without a victim advocate until her attacker was charged in the sexual assault and she and her husband have had no advocate reach out to them in the killing of her stepson because charges haven’t been filed.
Elkhart County only provides victim advocates when cases are in the felony court system. The county doesn’t have a 24-hour crisis line for crime victims or advocates who respond to crime scenes or who assist victims of misdemeanors.
Victim Assistance offers these services, while the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office provides victim advocates in felony court cases. Many other communities, however, offer services similar to Elkhart County.
Edwards was searching for agencies that have 24-hour hotlines when she hit on the Victim Assistance website. She thought, “Oh my gosh. That’s exactly what I want to do!”
Edwards had never before been to Akron. Graham took her on a tour last Monday that included Victim Assistance’s current building on Furnace Street, the Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center that houses the Akron Police Department and Akron Municipal Court, and the Delaware building on Main Street where Victim Assistance will soon move.
Graham provided Edwards with tips on getting grants from foundations and federal and state agencies. She gave Edwards a copy of a grant application that was just completed for federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
Graham, who has headed up Victim Assistance since 2013, said she advised Edwards that she might need to start small and then expand, much like Victim Assistance has done since it was first created in 1972.
“I had to remind her that she has to have patience,” Graham said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Victim Assistance is currently in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $450,000 for renovations to the new larger location where it will move early next year. The agency has outgrown its current space and the new spot will be closer to the police department and courts.
Graham said she was happy to help Edwards, especially because people with other agencies have given her ideas that she’s used.
“I wanted to do that for someone else,” she said.
Edwards, 37, said she learned a lot during her visit and now plans to figure out whether her next step will involve starting a new nonprofit or expanding the services offered by an existing agency. She expects to get support from the county of about 200,000 residents, especially after they learn more about what’s being offered to victims in other areas.
“We have nothing like this around here now,” she said. “They don’t realize what they’re missing.”
Edwards hopes her first trip to Akron won’t be her last. She wants to return next year to attend training offered by Victim Assistance.
“I will be back,” she said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.