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ACTS: A Haven for Victims Seeking Shelter from the Storm

By Jennifer Lazzo

Did you know that Action in Community Through Service (ACTS) provides more than just food and shelter to people in need? ACTS is an umbrella organization that serves many different needs. Founded in 1969, ACTS grew from addressing food and shelter needs to also providing domestic violence prevention and intervention, a crisis hotline and resource referral, and sexual assault support services.

Under the direction of Executive Director and CEO Steve Liga, who joined ACTS in the spring of 2015, the Dumfries-based nonprofit has streamlined its organization by configuring programs to use the same internal sources, cross-training staff and expanding its services.

ACTS has opened a second office in Manassas, a short walk from the courthouse, which provides all services except food, since two large food distribution programs are already in place in that part of the county, Liga noted. The office houses two new community educators and a new trauma counselor as well as multiple staff who work in both Manassas and Dumfries. It also offers clients the Behavioral Intervention Program, a 16-week program designed to educate perpetrators of domestic violence.

The community educators are responsible for providing education and awareness about sexual abuse and assault and domestic violence to the community and ACTS volunteers. Such efforts, through speeches, training, and media spots, reached 6,172 people in fiscal year (FY) 2017, according to Dotty Larson, director of domestic violence services (Turning Points). Many take place in October, nationally recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month since 1989.

ACTS depends upon volunteers to assist with food sorting to ensure that the clients served receive the appropriate food.

Only Organization Offering Comprehensive Crisis Services
ACTS has the only comprehensive sexual abuse and assault, domestic violence and suicide prevention programs in Prince William. “We’ve always provided those services county-wide, but now with an office in Manassas, it’s much more accessible to everyone,” Liga said.

The organization addressed 1,976 cases of domestic violence in FY17. “There are about 9,000 [domestic violence] calls per year to police in Prince William County, making it one of the most reported crimes,” said Larson.

ACTS trains local law enforcement officials to assess domestic violence situations and ask victims a series of questions; based on the responses, victims will receive immediate services, such as being transported to the ACTS safe house, or will be referred to the program the following day.

“People are always asking, ‘Why does she stay?’ There are so many reasons—it can be incredibly difficult to leave the situation,” said Larson. “We need to provide as much support and resources to the victim as we can.”

“It’s so much more complex than people think,” agreed Liga. “Victims need to believe that they’re worth something because for a long time they didn’t, and once they do, they need the support, so they can stay that way.”

Support services include housing, safety planning, job training, education and counseling, for both adults and children, as well as advocacy and court accompaniment. For years, the county has provided three offices in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court building in Manassas to ACTS for advocacy and court accompaniment.

“Our court program is unique because everyone who comes in for a protective order in the county gets immediate counseling,” said Larson. “I know of no others with offices so near or offering such a huge array of services. We stay with a client through many situations. Accessibility is key.

Sexual Assault Program One-of-a-Kind
ACTS also provides support for clients who have been sexually abused or assaulted. The program is the only one of its kind in Prince William. “If people disclose abuse or sexual assault, tell them you believe them,” said Lydia Teutsch, director of sexual assault services. “Tell them it’s not their fault. Share our
information with them so that they can come to a safe place where their healing is the priority.”

“We serve clients who have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused through one-on-one peer counseling and/or trauma counseling,” she continued. “We provide group support for teens and adults, and we offer accompaniment to law enforcement interviews and hospital forensic exams.”

Individuals who are very young or are complex trauma survivors may need to see ACTS’ new trauma counselor. “Last summer we hired a licensed therapist specifically to work with our sexual assault and domestic violence clients who need [more specialized services],” said Liga. “She’s trained [to work with people] all the way down to toddler age.”

Staff and volunteers who work with sexual assault and abuse victims are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “We usually have 25-30 volunteers helping us at any given time. Volunteers help take calls for our hotline, accompany victims to the hospital and facilitate support groups,” said Teutsch. “We have a small
staff and absolutely could not do what we do every day without the support of our many dedicated volunteers.”

Comcast Cares Day brought community volunteers to ACTS to assist with various tasks, including keeping the area beautiful.

The Act of Volunteering
It takes many hands to keep ACTS going. The organization depends on almost 2,500 volunteers each year to sort food, staff shelters, give comfort to someone just sexually assaulted, or listen to someone contemplating suicide.

“It is very important to fulfill the volunteer needs of an organization, but it is equally important to ensure that volunteers are stakeholders in their own experience and are able to reach their own volunteer goals within the community,” said Jane Anderson, ACTS volunteer coordinator. “ACTS volunteers change people’s lives every day, and I always try to make sure they understand and see their impact.”

ACTS is always in need of more volunteers, especially for the crisis services it provides. “Research is very clear: nothing will make you feel better than doing something for someone else,” said Liga. “We are hard-wired that way. We are built in community, and we’re at our best when we pull together.”

ACTS has two locations, one at 3900 ACTS Lane in Dumfries and the other at 9317 Grant Avenue in Manassas. For more information, visit actspwc.org, or call the general information line at 703-441-8606.

Important Numbers
ACTS Helpline (suicide, sexual assault and abuse): 703-368-4141
ACTS Domestic Violence: 703-221-4951
Sexual Assault Victims (individual and group support, education and outreach): 703-497-1192
ACTS Client Support: 703-221-3186
ACTS Emergency Shelter and Transitional Living: 703-221-3188

Jennifer Lazzo ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and editor who earned a B.A. in technical journalism and political science from Colorado State University. She lives with her husband and twin girls in Montclair.

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