The Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center (EPEC), which houses the only shelter for victims of violence in the area, has exponentially expanded its reach and impact over the years. Founded in 1977, it served less than 100 victims in its first year. Today it serves 1,400 victims annually.
“We’ve seen a steady rise in need in the last few years, likely because we are doing more outreach,” said Katie Spriggs, executive director. “There’s also been more media coverage on different types of victims, and we’ve added different types of services.”
While it began as a non-profit to help women in abusive relationships, EPEC currently helps victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, LGBT targeting, stalking, and human trafficking in Berkeley, Morgan, and Jefferson Counties.
The breakdown of victims per county in 2018 was roughly 900 in Berkeley County, 350 in Jefferson County, and 150 in Morgan County, Spriggs said. “Our numbers are similar to what’s happening in the rest of the state and even at the federal level.”
Formerly named the Shenandoah Women’s Center, EPEC was started by a group of volunteers who realized the Panhandle had a domestic violence problem. They bought the current shelter one year later, Spriggs explained.
“We changed the name in 2018 because, the last couple of years, we started assisting victims of human trafficking—and our services are available to everyone, regardless of someone’s gender. We’d have lost the opportunity to serve everyone if our name remained the Women’s Center.”
She added, “Whereas other social services in the area—like homeless shelters—focus on finding people housing and jobs, our first goal is to establish safety for the victim, and then help them put their life back together.”
That said, the need for services is currently greater than what EPEC can handle, which is why the organization plans to buy a second shelter.
“We’re in the process of launching a capital campaign to get another shelter in the next five years,” Spriggs indicated. “It will cost millions of dollars, and we’ll have to do a lot of fundraising. Our current shelter holds fifteen beds and we always have a waitlist. There are about twelve people currently on the waitlist, and it will be about six weeks before we can get them in. If their circumstance is a life or death situation, we put them up in a hotel and then transfer them to another shelter—which is often inconvenient for the victim because it could be hours away from where they live.”
In addition to hosting a hotline, as well as providing a shelter and support groups, EPEC’s efforts expand well beyond working with the victims themselves.
“We train the first line of defense who work with the victims, including attorneys, law enforcement, and medical and mental health personnel,” she said. “We run four response teams of first responders and have a sexual assault team for each of our three counties. Our goal is to get better services for these victims out in the community, including within the criminal justice system.”
EPEC also does police advocacy on the state and federal levels, said Spriggs. “For example, I’m on the steering committee of the West Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force. Of the fourteen hundred victims we served last year, seventy-five of them were from human trafficking.
“We also do prevention education in the school systems. The impact on the community is helping people and helping communities become friendlier to the needs of survivors.”
Put another way, said Spriggs, EPEC strives to educate the community to change the fundamental beliefs and practices that allow abuse to continue.
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“The hardest part of doing this type of work is hearing the details about horrific trauma every day, and hearing about other systems that the survivors work with—such as the criminal justice system and other public services—that don’t have a victim-centered approach,” Spriggs pointed out.
In an effort to raise money for EPEC, the organization has a few upcoming fundraisers. The first is EPEC’s Egg Stravaganza, an adult egg hunt, scheduled for May 18. Tickets are $20 per person, $15 per college student, and $35 per couple. The event will take place at the Mason Pavilion in Sam Michael’s Park (1516 Job Corps Rd., Harpers Ferry) from 3-7pm. All proceeds will go towards serving victims of sexual violence in the Eastern Panhandle and scholarships for Eastern Panhandle Sexual Assault Response Teams.
An additional event is the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center 27th-Annual Golf Tournament—set for June 22 at Cress Creek Country Club in Shepherdstown. Entry fee is $100 per golfer, which includes breakfast and lunch.By Lisa Troshinsky