The recent Gabby Petito saga has gripped much of our nation, and we still don't know much about this 22-year-old young woman and her tragic death. But this much seems clear: Gabby was involved in an unhealthy relationship that attracted the attention of police before her body ultimately was discovered in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
I thought of Gabby, and the thousands of other women who find themselves in similar circumstances, as I watched S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson announce $32 million in state and federal grants for organizations across our state that assist crime victims and survivors.
Those organizations include our own Pathways to Healing — formerly Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands — that will receive Victims of Crime Act grants totaling $1.2 million, representing the majority of our annual funding. Those dollars will enable us to continue serving hundreds of women and men each year throughout Richland, Lexington, Newberry, Clarendon and Sumter counties.
Founded in 1983, our nonprofit provides free and confidential help — including a 24-hour crisis hotline, hospital and court accompaniment, legal and personal advocacy, individual and group counseling, and assault prevention education — for survivors of sexual assault and abuse and their families.
Through our Building Healthy Communities curriculum, we also equip young women and men with the tools necessary to develop and maintain violence-free, respectful and healthy interpersonal relationships. This unique program helps individuals identify the telltale signs of an abusive relationship, which are often present long before the onset of physical violence.
“Even with all that I knew about abuse, I was still blindsided by a partner suffering from narcissistic personality disorder and was in an abusive relationship for a short while,” one survivor told us recently. “Believe it or not, it can be extremely difficult to recognize when you are in it.”
That’s exactly what our Building Healthy Communities curriculum does: It helps both women and men recognize the characteristics and symptoms of an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship, which often begins with continuous verbal abuse and “gaslighting” and progresses to physical violence and, sadly, even murder.
Thanks to funding such as the Victims of Crime Act grants we are also able to support survivors after the abuse occurs.
Lauren (not her real name) is just one example. She grew up in a seemingly normal, middle-class family in rural South Carolina. She, her parents and her siblings were highly respected and well-educated. They appeared to have the picture-perfect family. Lauren did well in school and made friends easily. She was an overachiever who had a bright future.
Behind that seemingly flawless façade, however, Lauren was suffering from childhood sexual abuse. After years of hiding behind fear and shame, she disclosed to her family that she had been sexually abused by someone close to her. While some believed and supported her, others questioned if she was lying. Very quickly, Lauren began to withdraw from her family, thinking, “Something must be wrong with me.”
Isolated and unheard, Lauren sought free, confidential support here at Pathways to Healing. After years of suffering in isolation, Lauren finally found a place where she could heal, a place that operates with the core value of “We Believe Survivors!” She took part in individual and group therapy sessions with our team that helped her realize that nothing was wrong with her; in fact, she was a strong survivor.
Today, Lauren is a thriving adult who shares her inspirational story with other survivors.
Coincidentally, on the same day that Attorney General Wilson announced the grants, we announced a name change for our 38-year-old organization, including a new logo and a new website. We believe our new name, “Pathways to Healing,” better represents how we help survivors.
“We stand beside each and every survivor as they walk along their own pathway to healing," our board chair Virginia Riley said. "We recognize that each individual’s pathway is unique, and we believe our new name appropriately reflects our role in supporting those collective journeys.”
Despite our name change, our mission remains the same as it's been during our nearly four decades of operation. At the end of every day, we hope to share more success stories like Lauren’s and see fewer heartbreaking tragedies like Gabby Petito’s.
Rebecca Lorick is executive director of Pathways To Healing (formerly Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands) in Columbia.