If you go

What: People Against Rape presents its annual rally, "Take Back the Night"

When: 6 p.m. April 17

Where: Marion Square in Charleston

It would have been easy to throw in the towel when People Against Rape hit financial bottom a year and a half ago.

Dr. Dean Kilpatrick, a founding member of the Charleston nonprofit, said when they discovered missing money, lost their grant funding and had to lay off every employee in 2012, that was the advice he got from many.

"They would say, 'This is too high a hill to climb, just dissolve the organization and maybe another one could come around and pick up the slack,' " Kilpatrick said. "I think it was heartbreaking to all of us."

Despite the grand challenges ahead for the group, which lost every employee and owed thousands of dollars to the federal government, PAR persevered.

"I think adversity can reveal character," Kilpatrick said. "The board said, 'We know its going to be hard, but if we can't do it, it won't be from any lack of trying.' "

Nineteen months later, PAR is emerging from darkness. Part of its grant funding was restored. They've hired three employees, and they're getting back to basics, according to board member Vickey Cornelison-Grant.

"The board and I, we just looked at each other and said, there is no one else to do this. We can't let this agency fail," she said. "So we had no clear idea what the resolution was going to be. It was one little step in front of each other."

The near downfall

In 2012, PAR lost $300,000 worth of grant money after learning that $60,000 to $80,000 worth of bills that had never been paid were submitted for reimbursement.

Board members blamed a former employee, who resigned and left the state after being confronted with irregularities.

The State Law Enforcement Division began a criminal investigation into the allegations, but the extent of PAR's financial problems remained unknown to the nonprofit group until 2012 when the board learned that bills, including the rent and federal taxes, had not been paid.

PAR reported the issues to their grant providers, which included the S.C. Department of Public Safety and the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The state agencies suspended their funding until the agency could account for everything.

The board laid off all 13 employees. They also could no longer afford to operate out of their offices in North Charleston.

"It was extremely difficult. It was like this big, dark, long tunnel," Cornelison-Grant said. "There were multiple setbacks."

Three former employees who had been laid off sued PAR, claiming they weren't paid what they were owed. In September, they reached a settlement.

Out of the tunnel

Despite the hardships, board members, such as Kilpatrick and Cornelison-Grant, saw light at the end of the tunnel.

"It was really, really hard emotionally, but on the other hand, it makes it gratifying. I think we have pulled it off," Kilpatrick said. "I think the organization is back on track, and I think the brighter days are ahead."

Cornelison-Grant coordinated volunteers and kept the 24-hour hotline running through the financial crisis. "We didn't miss one call for which we were called at the hospital," she said.

SLED's investigation remains ongoing, according to the agency's spokesman Thom Berry.

Kilpatrick, who has been in contact with SLED, said a preliminary investigative report showed authorities are nearly finished.

"It was pretty clear from our accountant, who did an audit and information from SLED, that the books were being kept in a way that was deceptive," Kilpatrick said.

The former employee has not been charged.

Funding from the state Department of Public Safety has not yet been restored and will remain suspended until the agency reviews SLED's final investigative report, according to Kilpatrick.

DHEC, however, restored about $150,000 of PAR's funding in June after PAR met all the conditions set, according to DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley.

PAR opened a new office on Meeting Street in downtown Charleston, which houses it's two full-time and one part-time employee.

In October, the agency hired a new executive director, Stacey Tunstill, an attorney with experience in nonprofit work.

Armed with 50 volunteers, seven times the amount they had in 2012, the group is currently offering support for victims during medical exams, prevention and education efforts and also continue maintaining their hotline.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she's grateful PAR is getting back on its feet.

"PAR does such a great job of not only providing a source of comfort but providing a voice for rape victims," she said.

Thanks to some of the grant money and private donations, PAR has also posted several billboards around the Lowcountry, including one depicting a woman wearing a tank-top that reads "It's an outfit, not an invitation." Board members hope the messages get people's attention and talking about the crisis.

"It's a difficult topic that no one wants to talk about," Cornelison-Grant said. "But when one in five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it's not a rarity."

Tunstill said they'd like to see more people call the hotline asking for help.

"We want victims to have a place to speak," she said.

PAR leaders said they want the community to know they are here to stay in order to support the area's victims and to continue their fight to prevent these crimes.

As they celebrate their 40th anniversary, leaders of PAR have been reflecting on their near-death experience and hope it serves as encouragement to keep up the fight.

"It's a time to take stock of where you've come from and where you are now and what we still need to do," Kilpatrick said. "We really want to do better than we ever have before."

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.