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HopeWorks seeks to add comfort in quilt created by sexual abuse survivors

Joyce Snow plans to write a poem about surviving a brutal sexual assault as her contribution to a national project, but she's waiting for inspiration at a special event in Fulton next weekend before composing it.

The Columbia-based group HopeWorks is anticipating a cathartic and unifying experience at its April 18 workshop, where survivors such as Snow will create squares to be added to the Monument Quilt, a work that will eventually be assembled on the National Mall in Washington.

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"This can be a very intense experience, especially for women who've never had therapy," said Vanita Leatherwood, director of community engagement for HopeWorks, formerly the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County.

The workshop, open to survivors and their supporters, is scheduled to coincide with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Leatherwood said similar art workshops are sponsored four times a year by HopeWorks.

The Monument Quilt project — which invites survivors of rape and abuse across the country to personalize a square and attach it to one of the numerous quilts being assembled for a 2017 installation on the Mall — is the brainchild of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, a Baltimore-based initiative.

Thousands of red fabric squares will be stitched together to spell out "NOT ALONE" in an effort to blanket over a mile on the Mall and to foster a culture that publicly supports survivors, according to the project's website at themonumentquilt.org.

"FORCE focuses on using the arts to aid survivors," said Leatherwood, who uses her background in transformative language arts and poetry therapy to assist women.

Snow, 49, who has lived in Columbia for nine years, is one of those survivors.

She said she was placed in a witness protection program 11 years ago after she escaped from two men who raped, beat and stabbed her during a home invasion in Pennsylvania. Snow said when her attackers turned their backs, she managed to flee, screaming for help in the middle of the night. A young man came to her rescue and took her to a hospital.

Fearing her attackers might come after her, Snow entered the protection program, was relocated and received a new name. She came to Howard County in 2007 and received support through the Domestic Violence Center.

"They helped me through my panic attacks and taught me I am worthy of being loved," said Snow, who also underwent cognitive therapy. "We [survivors] bury everything so deep. I had to relive everything in order to heal and be whole again; it was hard, but it was worth it."

After she moved here, the men who attacked her were arrested and tried, and are now serving life sentences, she said.

Leatherwood said that, unlike Snow, many victims of sexual assault know their attackers.

"Sexual violence is a large part of domestic and dating violence, which involves a past or current partner," she said. "It's important to connect the words 'sexual' and 'violence' since these are crimes that have nothing to do with desire."

Nationally, one in five women and one in 71 men report being raped in their lifetime, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control through its Division of Violence Prevention. One in 20 women and men say they have experienced sexual violence other than rape, the CDC reports.

In 2013, 40 rapes were reported to Howard County police, a 21 percent increase over 2012 and a 14 percent increase over the five-year average in the county, according to HopeWorks.

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In fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, 102 survivors received advocacy services at Howard County General Hospital through HopeWorks. Since July 1, 70 survivors have been served.

Describing the quilt workshop as "a tender and poignant time" for women to come together, Leatherwood said the part of the Monument Quilt project she appreciates most is that women can touch it and share it with others.

"It's important that it's visible, and that people aren't silent about sexual assault," she said. "We have to stop the silence because it allows violence to grow.

"Survivors are walking around with shame instead of shaming the perpetrators. These opportunities provide them the space to heal."

Quilt participants will receive craft supplies to use in creating whatever message or artwork they desire to add to 4-foot-by-4-foot panels.

There will be a self-care station to comfort those who feel uneasy or nervous, offering such aids as deep-breathing exercises, gentle music, and a black-and-white spiritual symbol known as a mandala that women can color in with markers to help them relax.

An optional time for sharing will occur near the end of the workshop, along with a community-building ritual in which women can chant an empowering phrase together to help them feel at peace before they leave.

Leatherwood said members of the HopeWorks staff will be part of a national leadership team that will work to make sure the Monument Quilt is ready for display in 2017.

"We will work together in the home stretch so that all of the pieces literally come together," she said.

As for Snow, she is enrolled in classes at Howard Community College and will start the nursing program there in August.

"I would like to do forensic nursing to pay it forward," she said. Forensic nursing involves collecting medical evidence from assaults at crime scenes and in hospital emergency rooms.

As Snow continues rebuilding her life, she said, there are still times when she prefers being alone "because I know I can trust me."

For a while she suffered from agoraphobia — a fear of open spaces that can imprison people in their homes — and there were times when she sealed her apartment door with duct tape to feel safe.

"But I'm in a strong relationship with a man now, and most of the time I feel free," she said.

"Howard County is my promised land."

If you go

The Monument Quilt Workshop will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at the Baltimore-Washington Conference, United Methodist Church Mission Center, 11711 E. Market Place in Fulton. Space is limited and registration is required; call HopeWorks at 410-997-0304 or go to wearehopeworks.org.

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