SASV members speak up against sexual violence

Illustration by Madison Cohen

The Hollie Vargas Organization: Students Against Sexual Violence (SASV) is a new club on NAU’s campus that will be launched in the fall 2019 semester. This organization was officially approved by ASNAU this spring semester after a little more than a year of planning. The club will serve as a survivor and ally support network, and an open platform for prevention and education.

Senior founder and president Daisy Ornelas created the club after her own experiences with sexual violence. Ornelas is a survivor of multiple violent encounters, one of which involved excessive force that she said she didn't know how to handle. Ornelas said she wasn’t aware of her options and didn’t say anything about the assault until she was 18, primarily because she was afraid. After speaking up about the situation, she said she received no support. During a visit to Oregon last year, she was triggered after seeing one of her former abusers.

“I started experiencing PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and, at that moment, I knew about it because I study criminology and whatnot — I knew what it was,” Ornelas said. “But I didn’t know what it felt like or that that’s exactly what PTSD was.”

She later discovered that she not only had PTSD because of her abuse but that the incident had also resulted in her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

“I was having a panic attack," Ornelas said. "My mom told me to essentially get over it because it had happened to her too. After that, I came back from Portland and I was in a really, really dark place.”

Ornelas reached out to Victim Witness Services (VWS) of Coconino County for help. Sexual violence victim advocate Hollie Vargas helped and assured Ornelas that her experiences weren’t her fault, that she didn’t need to be ashamed, found her a trauma specialist and a vast supply of other resources.

After allegations were made by Christine Ford against Brett Kavanaugh in October 2018, Ornelas wanted to get involved and do something to help, just like Vargas had helped her. She was asked by the Desiree Perez, Planned Parenthood regional health coordinator for northern Arizona, to fly out to Washington, D.C. and share her story with the Supreme Court.

After taking a red-eye flight and arriving at the event, Ornelas said she expected the audience to be only a handful of people. However, she said thousands were in attendance to hear her story.

“I felt like this weight had been lifted off,” Ornelas said. “Because it had given the kid inside me, not just the adult, but the little girl inside me, the voice she was never given.”

Ornelas was then asked by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to also share her story with the Senate. After going to Washington to speak, Ornelas said she felt uplifted and inspired to bring her newfound energy back to Flagstaff. Shortly after returning, she spoke with ASNAU about getting her organization up and running.

“What I explained to ASNAU was that this organization is going to save lives,” Ornelas said.

After hearing about Ornelas’ advocacy efforts against sexual violence, Brooke de Heer reached out to Ornelas to provide support. De Heer teaches introductory courses in crime and justice, violent crime and many more. She has been teaching at NAU for eight years.

Both de Heer and Ornelas said they bonded over the possibilities and impact of the student organization. De Heer is now the faculty adviser for SASV.

De Heer said she wants future members of SASV to engage in healing, learning and sharing when they attend meetings.

“It’s a safe space where people can come," de Heer said. "It’s not just survivors or people that are victims. This is [for] people who have an interest in advocacy. This is [for] people who are allies or people who have been victimized.”

Senior and SASV Vice President Luis Lopez said he wanted to not only be involved in this organization for his own advocacy purposes but to set an example for male involvement in these issues.

“Advocacy for women here on campus is insanely low,” Lopez said. “They are just underrepresented. They are doubted before they are believed, and that’s what we wanted to reverse.”

Lopez said he wanted to support Ornelas but also to make others feel validated. He said under-representation leads to hesitancy and makes many people reluctant or unwilling to speak out. To him, helping just one person is worth it.

“It’s a voluntary group, just to stand as a readily available support network for people who need any number of things,” de Heer said. “This group will absolutely have all versions of appropriate resources available — from VWS, to legal consultation, to the police.”

De Heer said she has ambitions of creating a website for SASV, having a reliable and consistent social media presence, and finding means to advertise on all platforms.

SASV doesn’t have any membership requirements or fees. Currently, there are three leadership positions that exist: president, vice president and secretary.

“Ideally I would like to see them communicate with the next group of leadership coming in and work together to create a really cool introduction event,” de Heer said. “And then from there, build up membership.”

SASV will host an open-door, weekly meeting that anyone can attend, whether they are a survivor, advocate or seek education on how to become an ally. A key aspect of the organization is anonymity. Any individuals who attend meetings are not required to disclose who they are or their reasons for attending.

"When I picture the future for the organization, I see one large voice that’s actually willing to stand up and give the motivation to speak to the university and actually have [NAU’s] support, “ Lopez said.

Outside of building a relationship with the university, this organization will work with groups like Planned Parenthood, Survivors Alliance and VWS to raise awareness.

Ornelas and Lopez are both graduating this May, however, they still plan on being extremely involved and visiting the SASV as often as possible. They are looking for others to get involved and become leaders within this group.

“I just want to see a long-term plan to make sure it’s sustainable because I would hate for all of this work to be gone once they leave,” de Heer said.

Personal experience and wanting to help others fueled Ornelas’ passion to create this group, but she said she also wanted it to honor Vargas, someone Ornelas said gave her a voice.

“She took her own life,” Ornelas said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was never close with family after what happened to me as a kid. My professors, my friends and Hollie, those were the people who became family for me.”

Vargas was named Coconino County Response Team Advocate of the Year in 2013. On the day of her memorial April 5, Ornelas decided to name the organization after Vargas.

She said more people need to talk about sexual violence and become more educated on it.

“Just because it doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” Ornelas said.