Gurnee-based Zacharias Center provides haven for sexual abuse survivors

Gurnee-based Zacharias Center provides haven for sexual abuse survivors

Stuffed animals sit in one of the counseling rooms at the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Gurnee. A new center opened its doors this month in Skokie. (Armando L. Sanchez, Chicago Tribune)

One summer afternoon, the couple got a call saying that their teenage daughter had been sexually assaulted while jogging on a public trail.

When they got to the hospital, they could see their daughter as she was being examined but couldn’t yet touch or hug her. Officials at the hospital told the mother to restrain the urge to wipe the dirt and gravel from her daughter’s face.

“Your child becomes a crime scene,” said the mother, sitting beside her husband during a recent interview at the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Gurnee.

The Tribune is withholding the couple’s names to protect their daughter’s identity.

“So you’re there in the hospital, there’s police, and of course you have no clue how to deal with all this,” the father said. “And all of the sudden, there’s a woman there who’s from the Zacharias Center.”

Survivors of sexual abuse come to the center in a variety of ways — through the emergency room, through schools or via referral from other organizations. Sometimes, they just walk through the front doors, said Executive Director Amy Junge.

The center gives free counseling and therapy services to victims and their families, both children and adults. It also staffs a 24-hour crisis hotline and holds prevention, outreach and advocacy programs.

The Zacharias Center is one of the agencies chosen this year for the Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving series, a campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.

Next summer, the Lake County nonprofit plans to open a second location in Skokie, funded in part through a $1 million grant from the North Suburban Healthcare Foundation, according to Stephanie Garrity, the Zacharias Center’s director of stewardship and development.

Although the center already offers some services in Skokie, the new facility will broaden the organization’s impact, Junge said.

“Being able to have a physical space in Skokie is really critical,” she said.

Formerly known as LaCASA, the Zacharias Center has been in its current location in Gurnee for about 17 years, according to Garrity. The center’s atmosphere is part of what makes Zacharias unique, Junge said.

Walking through the halls on a recent afternoon, Junge and Garrity pointed out building features such as wide hallways and large windows that allow plenty of natural light. They’re intended to create a bright, safe haven for sexual assault victims.

Soft light from stylish fixtures on the wall provide a warm glow. Toys and stuffed animals fill rooms for children; an art therapy room doubles as a place for mindfulness training.

The center’s soothing aesthetic is important for staff as well as the clients, Junge and Garrity said.

“This is heavy work, for everyone,” Garrity said.

The work, though, helps thousands. In fiscal 2014, the center served about 45,000 people, according to its records, including more than 31,000 reached through prevention education.

About 940 people were served through counseling, crisis intervention and the hotline, according to the center’s numbers.

About 14 percent of the sexual assault survivors were male; about 41 percent were children, its data show.

“More often than not, when people come here in crisis, they come as adults for something that happened in childhood,” Junge said.

Fundraising can be a challenge given the sensitive nature of the mission, she said. Rarely do survivors want to speak publicly about their experiences.

Over the years, the center has made a point of diversifying the source of its funding, Junge said. In fiscal 2013, about 60 percent of the organization’s $1.7 million in revenue came from public donations, according to the most recent financial report provided to the state, and about 28 percent came from government grants.

The parents of the young woman attacked while jogging say that however the center gets its funding, it has proved an invaluable resource in navigating the arduous journey toward healing.

Their daughter went on to graduate from college and is working in her chosen field. The family has not allowed the incident to define their lives, her parents said, though it felt for a time like it did.

“If this place wasn’t here, I don’t know where we would have gone,” the mother said. “I don’t know who would have come to us.”

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