Veronica Ramos isn't a counselor. By day, she works in accounting for Bend Parks and Recreation District. She dreams of one day opening a halfway home for women transitioning out of human trafficking. For now, though, she's focusing on a new support group for women survivors of sexual abuse — something she's passionate about, as a survivor herself.
"I just have a heart to help others, and I'm trusting that that's enough—and I'm seeing, when I'm meeting these women, that it is," says Ramos. "All they want is connection and I can offer that."
Seven years ago, Ramos was looking for a support group to assist in her healing from her own history of sexual abuse. At the time, she couldn't find a group offering a support system of other women who've had similar experiences with sexual violence.
"People who haven't experienced this may not understand smells can be triggering. Flashbacks happen in the most random, odd times and different things can bring that on," says Ramos. "There's a lot of pain — and there's a lot of shame that comes with having survived."
Ramos says she wants to break that down, to give women the feeling of being valued and loved — and to let them know that these feelings aren't abnormal.
A path 'wrought with struggle'Ramos grew up in Medford, Ore., raised by a single mom. She says predators, like her abuser, know how to pick out children in vulnerable situations. According to a grooming behavior list provided by KIDS Center, a child abuse prevention center that serves Deschutes, Jefferson, Crook and surrounding counties, single parents are often targeted by predators looking to abuse a child. Other vulnerable people are children who are unpopular, have low self-esteem or are often unsupervised.
Now 41 years old, Ramos says she continued to be physically and emotionally abused, as an adult, in intimate relationships. It's been a challenge as a survivor, she says, to realize her worth — but she feels she's finally arriving.
"My path is wrought with struggle. I've struggled to get everything I have. I think that's why this space is so beautiful. It's incredible — when these women meet with me with tears in their eyes and say I'm so grateful that you're doing this, my heart just swells and I'm so thankful that I overcame the fear of stepping out into this."
The first in her family to graduate from college, Ramos began her major in business at Oregon State University and completed her bachelor's degree at Eastern Oregon University with an emphasis in accounting. She has a gift for structure and organization — something she says has helped her plan her support group.
A group for survivorsKIDS Center served 3,830 children, youth and Central Oregon families in 2017. According to its 2017 annual report, 161 children referred to KIDS Center had experienced sexual abuse.
"While nationwide trends in child abuse rates are debated, here in Central Oregon, we not only continue to see growing demand for child abuse evaluations, but also for our mental health, advocacy, and family support enrollment in our prevention education and training courses," said KIDS Center Executive Director Shelly Smith in the 2017 annual report.
Oregon women and girls are sexually abused at rates higher than the national average. According to a 2010-2012 report from the Center for Disease Control, 47.5 percent of Oregon women reported having experienced contact sexual violence, and 26.3 percent reported completed or attempted rape in her lifetime. These rates exceed the national average. In a 2015 update to the same report, it was found that 43.6 percent of U.S. women reported experiencing some form of contact sexual violence in her lifetime. About 1 in 5 women, or 21.3 percent of U.S. women, reported completed or attempted rape.
Although many women experience sexual violence, Ramos wasn't sure how many women would reach out about her group. She says women who have experienced sexual violence often have trust issues, making it hard for some to reach out. But after posting fliers at the library, she's had a handful of women reach out so far. She intends to keep this first group small to foster safety and connection among the women.
"I'm shocked at the level of response that I've had," says Ramos. "I would like to continue and my hope is that some other women will rise up out of the group that want to start groups — that I can be an inspiration to other women to step out on this journey."
Women interested in joining the support group, which begins the first week of March, should reach out to Ramos to discuss if the group will be a good fit. Participants can join up to three weeks after the start date.