Filling a void: Victim Services of Cambria and Somerset Counties turns 35
(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series of stories about Victim Services.)
Thirty-five years ago, if you were sexually assaulted, raped or beaten in the area, you were basically on your own. It was on you to find someone to help you. You had to go to the hospital by yourself. There was no one who could guide you through what could be a hostile criminal justice system. No one to take away the scariness of what had happened to you or what would happen to you next. No one to tell you about your rights. That is until a newly formed nonprofit group calling itself Victim Services hit the ground running in Somerset and Cambria counties.
It was 1982 when Lucie Whittle picked up The Tribune-Democrat and read a series of articles about the demise of the group Cambria County Women Against Rape.
In a telephone interview with a Daily American reporter, Whittle said her “consciousness was raised” from those articles.
She spoke with the leaders of the group and found out that they had kept it going since the 1970s and were burned-out. The group was helping traumatized women without any financial cushion. Volunteers were even barred from accompanying victims to the hospital.
“I recognized this was really very fantastic work and very brave, and I just felt it needed more,” Whittle said.
She turned to her husband, Randy Whittle, who was executive director of the Greater Johnstown Committee, a group of business and community leaders. The couple had moved to the Johnstown area in 1979. He later would serve a stint as interim city manager. He died in 2013.
“Something needs to be done for these women. There is no help for them,” she remembers telling her husband.
Whittle, with the guidance of her husband, formed and led a steering committee of community and professional leaders from Cambria and Somerset counties, many leaders in their own fields. By 1983, the committee decided that an organization needed to be there for both men and women, boys and girls, who were victims of sexual assault and violent crimes. The new organization needed to be a two-county endeavor.
The group decided to call the new nonprofit Victim Services Inc. of Cambria and Somerset Counties.
For the endeavor, Randy Whittle obtained one grant for furniture and a second grant for operational costs that included the executive director’s salary and funding to run the organization for a year. The grants were from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
“We started something and we put it together and we just put one foot in front of another and kept going,” Lucie Whittle said. “And thank God the state (of Pennsylvania) was ready for us. There was a statewide organization that could support us financially; and it was OK to move forward and shoot in a faster pace.”
The next thing needed to move the group forward was an executive director. At first, the committee planned to hire three people to provide 24-hour service. Those plans changed, however.
How to find an executive director — stand on the corner
It was a routine morning in 1983 when Rosalie “Rosie” Danchanko saw Randy Whittle standing on a Johnstown street corner. She stopped and gave him a lift. It was her last week working for the Community Action Partnership of Cambria County as the energy action coordinator. There was no more funding for that position.
On the ride to work, Randy Whittle told her about a project Lucie was working on that dealt with sexual assault victims and told her to contact his wife about working with the organization.
“I said OK, dropped him off, did what I needed to do, and completely forgot about it, probably because I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about this and do I need to jump into something that I didn’t know anything about?’ Lo and behold isn’t Randy on that corner the next morning. I picked him up,” Danchanko said.
A dynamic leader
Danchanko remembered being “a little cocky” and telling the steering committee during her interview that she would take the job as the only director and make it work. She went home thinking she did not have the job and figured she could spend more time with her child.
Her time at home was short-lived. Danchanko was indeed wrong. She was hired as the first executive director of Victim Services.
On her first week on the job, Danchanko received a call from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. She learned that the organization did not know if it could give Victim Services the awarded funds that Randy Whittle had obtained. Victim Services’ new executive director was not certified as a rape crisis counselor. The group was not capable of responding to a crisis 24/7.
“I got a new job. Now, there is no money. I’m not trained. I don’t have trained volunteers. What am I going to do?” she said.
“Scott and Rick (mental health counselors) took me by the hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, you are experienced in the social service world and crisis-related problems. You can do this.’”
On the second week on the job, Danchanko went to three different rape crisis centers to obtain the required hours of training for certification. On her third week on the job, the phones opened 24 hours a day.
“And I was it,” she said.
Her first call was from a woman who came out of her apartment at night to go to work when a man jumped out in front of her and exposed himself. The woman was traumatized because it brought back memories of childhood abuse.
“That was the real beginning,” she said.
Next, Danchanko got the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape to give her a month to develop a volunteer training program.
“The group of volunteers were like my saving grace, because they came from all walks of life within the community,” she said.
Building the nucleus
People were learning about Victim Services. Individuals were coming through the doors to help and to be helped.
“The organization was doing what it set out to do, helping people who were suffering and didn’t know how to heal,” Lucie Whittle said.
Victim Services took on its own life.
“It is a good idea that when you set something up, you want it to take on its own life. Back off from it. Let it take on its own life,” she said.
She left her position within two years.
The nonprofit has had its ups and downs with money and community support, but overall it has done “very, very well,” she said.
Unlike other nonprofits that have had to cut services because of a lack of funding, Victim Services has been able to add new services and funding sources, according to Tracey Cook, senior counselor, who has been with Victim Services for 25 years.
Funding has come from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, United Way, fundraising and public support, she said.
The organization “is growing by leaps and bounds,” Cook said.
The nonprofit deals with all ages of abused individuals, from children to the elderly. The group also reaches out to the community with educational programs.
Victim Services presents prevention education programs on subjects such as date rape, bullying, sexual harassment and internet safety. The nonprofit offers puppet shows with the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” theme at schools in the two counties.
Advocates also provide crisis counseling and support, a 24-hour hotline, accompaniment to crime-related medical, police and criminal justice proceedings, victim notification, court orientation and court preparation services.
Since 2014, the organization has doubled its operating budget, which was $1.4 million in 2017-18. The staff has tripled to 22 full-time employees and several intern volunteers. Victim Services opened a satellite office in Somerset in 2014.
In Somerset and Cambria counties during fiscal year 2016-17, Victim Services served 1,089 people, including 905 victims of sexual assault and 184 victims of other violent crimes. The number of those served was up by 100 from 2016 and is expected to increase by another 100 this year, according to Michael Oliver, the group’s executive director.
Since July, Victim Services has seen more than 1,500 clients, Cook said from her office in Somerset.
“You can only imagine the numbers of people who have been sexually assaulted in the state . . . just staggering, staggering,” Cook said.
Passing the torch
Danchanko left the executive director position after seven years to do other community-oriented work and is now the executive director of Highlands Health, formerly known as the Johnstown Free Medical Clinic. Danchanko was followed by Wanda Vavrek, who took the position in 1990. Oliver was hired as executive director in 2014.
“I found a very dedicated, mission-driven staff,” Oliver said. “I knew we could take it forward.”
Cook is one of those. She was awarded the prestigious 2017 Governor’s Victim Services Pathfinder Award. She heads the Somerset County Sexual Assault Response Team for Victim Services and is the organization’s victim compensation coordinator. She also is a certified trauma practitioner and homicide intervention specialist, but she prefers her most recent title of senior counselor.
“It is time for justice,” Cook said. “It is time for those people to have their voice. Do we want generations of our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren living in a society like this where it is OK to abuse women or men?”
She and the other members of the Victim Services team have seen a change over the years in the numbers of people coming forward.
“Way back when, even though we were here, not a lot of people knew about it. We were one of those agencies you didn’t know about until you needed us,” Cook said. “Now, everybody knows we are here. Everybody knows what we do. It gives them someplace to go. It gives them an outlet for support. It gives them hope.”