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A Welcome Refuge

The Rowan Center Helps Victims of Assault

In 1979, a group of volunteers set up a trailer at the back of Stamford Hospital – an unlikely, but welcome refuge for victims of abuse who might find themselves in the emergency room wondering where to turn.

The former Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education provided them with counseling, advocacy, and an understanding shelter in a storm to start them on the path to recovery.

Forty-five years later, what is now called The Rowan Center is still taking its inspiration and conviction from that image of rescue and resilience.

“The name is taken from the Rowan tree,” said CEO Mary Forman Flynn, who joined the board of directors in 2017. “In a story about Thor, the Norse god, he fell into a raging river and was being swept away. He grabbed onto a twig of what happened to be a Rowan tree. It was small, but strong, and it saved his life.

“It symbolizes strength and regrowth.”

The Rowan Center knows a lot about growth. In its 45-year history the nonprofit has transformed from that trailer behind the hospital into a vital part of the nine-agency Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. The Stamford-based center serves communities from Greenwich to Weston, an area of about 400,000 individuals.

In November, staff, volunteers, and community supporters gather for the group’s annual fundraiser, Gingerbread Houses and Cocktails for a Cause, a festive evening of fun, auctions and the genial rivalry of the gingerbread house-decorating competition. Held at the Inn at Longshore, the event generally sells out and proceeds support the Rowan Center’s many components, especially youth protection. 

Rooted in a three-pronged mission of counseling, advocacy, and education, The Rowan Center fielded about 1,000 calls to its crisis hotline and provided counseling and advocacy – which often involves court visits – to about 500 people last year. Rowan Center counselors offered 1,250 sessions to clients, who can avail themselves of 12 free sessions.

Mary and current board chair Sharon Walker Epps says the #MeToo movement of recent years has helped shine a needed light on the issue and made advocacy and education easier.

“The #MeToo movement really helped a lot,” Mary says. “We were willing to face it, to understand it and to talk about it.”

And that created a need to bolster the center’s trained personnel, making sure they were equipped to handle situations in a compassionate and professional manner, Sharon says. The center’s budget grew from about $600,000 to $1.5 million, and the staff, advisory council and board now include medical professionals, licensed certified social workers and law enforcement partners. A recent gala provided $200,000 and the annual gingerbread fundraiser adds about $150,000 now, she says.

“We more than doubled the staff,” Sharon added. “And they’re qualified, dedicated, hard-working people.” 

At this year’s fundraiser, The Rowan Center will present the Graber Legacy Award to a volunteer who exemplifies the dedication and compassion of former board member Pamela Graber, a 27-year Westport resident who passed away in 2022. A tireless advocate for victims and survivors, Graber helped plan the gingerbread event, took regular weekly shifts on the hotline and accompanied many victims and survivors to the hospital. 

A crucial piece of the puzzle is education, both for clients and for the community. The center has created robust partnerships with 36 schools, offering age-appropriate workshops and classes to about 17,000 children and teens.

The curriculum begins in the early grades, giving youngsters information about safety and personal space, Mary says. By 5th and 6th grade, educators offer tips for the digital world and later grades tackle consent and things to know before heading off to college or a career. 

“We call it prevention education,” Mary says.

Like the tree that gave it its name, the center is still looking for helpful ways to branch out. Leaders are working toward a long-term clinic and programming for restaurant staff, people with disabilities and those in senior centers, nursing homes and assisted living. With bystander intervention awareness a hot topic, they’re considering more ways to train those who might find themselves in the position to offer aid – including educators, fraternity members and bartenders.

Working with law enforcement in local communities ensures victims receive the help they need in crisis situations. The Rowan Center works with police departments, training them to spot signs of violence.

“It really takes a community to step up and make a difference,” says Sharon.

While the work can be grueling, that difference is a godsend to clients like A.H:

“Whenever I feel like giving up or letting it go, there is always a reassurance to push on,” she says. “I would recommend the services to anyone who is in a situation where they are needed. I have been at my lowest points…, but when I go into a session and have talks [with my counselor], my security comes back. I know they are always a phone call away!”

The Rowan Center

TheRowanCenter.org

“The #MeToo movement really helped a lot. We were willing to face it, to understand it and to talk about it.”

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