Marching with a purpose at Sexual Assault Awareness Walk in Charlotte

About 60 people walked through uptown Charlotte on Saturday morning carrying signs with messages such as “Break the Silence” and “See Something. Rape is a Crime. Say Something.”

They’d gathered at the Children and Family Services Center on East Fifth Street for the second annual Mecklenburg County Sexual Assault Awareness Walk, sponsored by Safe Alliance, a nonprofit social services agency.

Many in the group had been sexually abused and kept quiet about it for years, but finally decided to open up to others and seek help. That’s why the walk was called “Uncaged.”

“It’s taken courage for them to come out,” said Cori Goldstein, Mecklenburg Sexual Trauma Resource Center supervisor. “There’s such a huge stigma around sexual assault and there’s a lot of secrecy. Sexual assault touches everyone, directly or indirectly.”

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. One of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. One in 33 American men has experienced an attempted or completed rape in his lifetime. About two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

Safe Alliance supports victims of domestic and sexual violence and child abuse.

The agency offers shelter, counseling, legal and advocacy services to more than 20,000 people a year in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Union and southern Iredell counties while reaching 20,000 more through advocacy and education.

Saturday’s one-mile walk included four stops for the group to hear speakers, including Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Spencer Merriweather. Outside ImaginOn on East Seventh Street, anyone who’d experienced a sexual assault was invited to come forward and share anything they’d like.

Nine women responded – all saying, “I am a survivor.”

“It gave me goosebumps,” said walk organizer Johanna Covault, who is volunteer coordinator for the Sexual Trauma Resource Center at Safe Alliance. “They came from all different walks of life. It shows how much impact the event had on people. A lot came up to me afterward asking about services that were available.”

Sarah Transier took part in the walk on her 21st birthday, recalling how she’d been sexually abused by a neighbor and his autistic son when she was 8.

As she walked along North Tryon Street, she thought back over all the years she’d remained silent about what had happened to her. Last year, she told a counselor about the abuse and then her parents.

“I decided to take my voice back,” Transier said. “I met myself for the first time.”

As she moves forward “the emotions come back,” she said. “But I’m working on it.”

UNC Charlotte student Catherine Kelly, 20, said that as a child she was sexually abused by a neighbor and was assaulted by a boyfriend when she was a teenager.

“I never really admitted it to myself,” said Kelly, who is majoring in psychology and criminal justice. “I felt really ashamed and icky. It took me a long time to come out and ask for help. I was ready to take back my life and not be a victim anymore.”

While she knows the sexual abuse will be with her for the rest of her life “it doesn’t have to be something that destroys you,” Kelly said. “I’ve learned to use it as a tool. It’s made me stronger.”