Crime Victims’ Center celebrating four decades

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Nonprofit advocacy agency to host fund-raising anniversary dinner

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

Crime victims and advocates gather for the annual candlelight vigil, one of the ways that the Chester County Crime Victims' Center of Chester County supports victims.

Crime victims and advocates gather for the annual candlelight vigil, one of many ways in which the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County performs its mission.

From humble beginnings as a passionate, persistent group of Chester County victim advocates in the early ’70s, an agency that came to be known as the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, Inc. has not only survived the test of time, it has also served as a national and international model.

Originally called the Rape Crisis Council, the organization is celebrating four decades of ministering to victims – and  working to prevent victimization. On Friday, Nov. 15, the Crime Victims’ Center will host a 40th anniversary dinner at the Downingtown Country Club from 7 to 11 p.m. The fund-raising event will include a silent auction, raffles, and music.

For years, the Crime Victims’ Center has offered myriad services that include two 24-hour crisis hotlines, one for sexual assaults and one for other crimes; accompaniment for victims at police interviews and court proceedings; individual and group counseling; sensitivity training; and outreach programs on topics such as date rape and bullying.

In 1975, a two-day conference that the advocates  organized at West Chester State College attracted victim-service groups from five states and the District of Columbia. The conference led to the establishment of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which enabled advocacy groups to work together to change Pennsylvania law.

Groups from Japan, New Zealand and Russia have traveled to the agency’s quarters in West Chester to copy its programs, and the Crime Victims’ Center was spotlighted in a 2002 TV documentary in Japan. Three years later, the Japanese opened a sister agency named “The Margaret” after Peggy Gusz, CVC’s longtime director. Gusz, one of the agency’s founding members, became its second director after Constance C. Noblet retired in 1988.

Joan Verna, who began helping with the center’s books in the ’80s, recalled witnessing incredible growth – and an amazing staff that continuously stretched to meet the needs of victims. “I worked out of a drawer,” she said. “I’d come in a couple of hours twice a week; that was all that was needed back then.”

During her 20-year tenure at the agency, Verna said she “graduated to a desk,” learned more about accounting than she ever imagined, and even assisted with some fund-raising. Verna said she was constantly impressed with the dedication of the employees as well as the center’s mission, which included “fantastic educational programs.”

Gusz said when she first became involved with the Rape Crisis Council, she never could have envisioned the Crime Victims’ Center four decades later. “We’re never been pioneers,” she said. “We’re reactive. We’ve never planned anything. We always rely on our victims to guide us.”

She said what began as an effort to counsel female rape victims evolved in “so many different directions” as needs arose for both genders. For example, when the child-abuse laws changed in the mid-80s, the agency had to adjust to younger victims.

“One of the things that has been the most staggering is that something new always comes along,” Gusz said, citing spates of car-jacking, gang activity, elder abuse, and most recently, crimes stemming from the internet, such as cyber-bullying. “Unfortunately, we’re probably never going to be out of a job.”

Gusz said she credits the people on the agency’s staff and board as well as supporters in the community for the survival of the Crime Victims’ Center.  “Thank God we have wonderful people,” she said. “They all have good hearts. They’re  kindred spirits who support our focus, which is always the victim. As long as we stay true to that, we’ll hold steady.”

An annual candlelight vigil provides a notable example of how the nonprofit agency allowed victims to shape its direction. The gathering grew out of the need of homicide victims’ family and friends to pay tribute to their loved ones. One vigil even generated a permanent memorial.

Mario A. Spoto, a Downingtown chiropractor, came in contact with the agency after his 38-year-old sister-in-law was fatally stabbed in 2000. He and his family were so appreciative of the outreach of victim advocates at the vigil that they suggested creating a living memorial, a tranquil place where grieving families could reflect on positive memories at any time.

The agency agreed to back the project if the family solicited the funding, which it did, raising more than $125,000 from a variety of sources that included federal, state, county, and local government as well as private and business donations. In 2005, the Victims’ Memorial of Chester County was dedicated in Downingtown’s Kardon Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue near Green Street.

Since its inception, the agency has helped countless crime victims navigate the legal system, a journey that can be daunting for those unfamiliar with court procedures. It also runs support groups and anti-crime initiatives. In the 2012-2013 fiscal year, agency records indicate that it provided more than 35,000 hours of direct service to 4,904 clients while 42,057 participated in prevention and education programs.

Verna said she never got involved in any of the cases because that was not her role, and the staff made confidentiality a priority. However, Verna said she would sometimes see children come in for counseling. “That was tough,” she said. “I knew not to ask questions, but it was sad to see.” She said she continues to have the utmost respect for the victim advocates, some of whom have worked at the agency for decades. “I’m in awe of them,” she said. “I was always proud to be associated with them.”

Tickets for the dinner cost $50 per person and include dinner, beer, wine, and soda; a cash bar will be available. To purchase tickets or an event sponsorship, visit http://www.cvcofcc.org/40years. The Downingtown Country Club is located at 93 Country Club Drive, Downingtown, Pa., 19335.

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