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A Lebanon County teenager is continuing the work she began last year, when she led an effort to give new voice to survivors of sexual assault.
Amaya Rodriguez, who is now just a few months shy of 19, was one of six recipients in November 2022 of a Governor’s Victim Service Pathfinder Award, the most prestigious award that Pennsylvania gives to a victim service professional or program.
For Rodriguez, it started as a project with friends to organize a sexual assault protest in the community. Her fledgling efforts led her to the Sexual Assault Resource & Counseling Center, a Lebanon County sexual assault program, and her diligence and devotion to her cause inspired SARCC president and CEO Ali Perrotto to nominate Rodriguez for the award.
“It takes great courage to speak out,” Perrotto said in a press release. “Sexual violence is a common and widespread issue in our community and in the state of Pennsylvania. Young people are the age group at greatest risk for violence and victimization. Yet, it is incredibly difficult for a young person to disclose experiences of abuse and sexual assault, to be believed, connected with resources, and to find support. Amaya worked hard to draw on her own experiences and those of her peers to explain the challenges faced by teen survivors.”
Perrotto recalls her first encounters with Rodriguez, when she was planning her first protest.
“She found and reached out to SARCC,” Perrotto told LebTown. “She was looking for resources for survivors of sexual assault. She wanted to know what resources were available.”
The organization has worked in collaboration with Lebanon Valley College on previous occasions, she said, but such initiative from a high school student is rare.
“She’s a very intelligent, well-spoken young woman,” Perrotto added. “She cares a lot about this issue. … Being active and advocating for others is something that motivates her. That’s something that has continued to shine through as I’ve gotten to know her better.”
Becoming an activist
Her journey began in January 2022, when Rodriguez took her first steps toward becoming an activist. The idea had been percolating for a few months, she said.
“I wanted to speak up on situations that no one wanted to talk about in Lebanon. Sensitive topics,” she explained. “Just because I’m a victim myself and I haven’t had a lot of luck when it comes to social justice.”
Her own experiences made her feel helpless, and she didn’t want that feeling to continue, she said.
“I didn’t want to feel alone,” Rodriguez said. “All the feedback I got, whether it was family or police, made me feel like my case wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to take matters into my own hands and spread some awareness.”
And, while she feels like she never got the justice she sought in a legal sense, Rodriguez still feels the power of her accomplishments simply by “seeing myself surrounded by people who believe me and support me 100%.”
Speaking up and becoming an activist took her “out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Some people thought I was bluffing, or I was just looking for attention. … But I stuck with it.”
The idea behind her original plans for a protest, she said, was the notion of bringing people together to share their stories.
The event that grew from her took place on April 8 on the 8th and Lehman street side of Monument Park. Although she described the turnout as “a handful,” Rodriguez said there “were a lot of people I didn’t expect coming. I got a lot of recognition on social media.”
“I think it went pretty well,” she added. “A lot of people were engaging in conversations. A lot of people spoke out on their stories. It was motivating. It made all of us fall connected. … It was one of the purist moments of my life.”
She spoke out because she “needed to,” she said. She never expected to be recognized for her efforts or win an award for it.
The award, she said, “definitely showed that some people saw potential in me.”
‘A survivor turned thriver’
The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency presented the Pathfinder Award to Rodriguez during a virtual award ceremony in November. Rodriguez specifically was recognized as an Outstanding Student Activist for 2022.
According to a press release, nominees for the Outstanding Student Activist Award must be full- or part-time students or, if they graduated within the last year, their accomplishments must have occurred while they were still in school. Activism cited in the nomination does not have to be conducted at school, however.
The nominator must detail for the committee ways in which the nominee made a visible contribution and impact on the victim services movement in Pennsylvania, how the nominee’s spirit of empowerment has been reflected in their activism efforts, and ways in which the nominee has engaged others to become involved in their activism efforts to help victims of crime.
According to the release, Rodriguez’s original plan for a protest evolved over time into the public Student Speak Out event at Monument Park. She also met with school administrators and the Title IX coordinator, county officials, and local police to share her experiences, the goals of the event, and the needs of teen survivors.
In partnership with her school principal, Rodriguez produced a public service video to educate students on the basics of sexual assault, options for reporting and accommodations through Title IX, and ways that students can ask for assistance using the statewide Safe2Say program. Title IX governs matters of discrimination, sexual harassment and other types of misconduct.
In her nomination, Perrotto said Rodriguez “is an outstanding young woman, a survivor turned thriver, and a voice for positive social change for young survivors of sexual assault in our local school district and the community. She deserves recognition her for efforts as a student activist both within her school district, and in the community at large.”
“It took many hours of research, preparation, and brave and patient conversations with representatives of school administration, law enforcement, and local city and county officials to explain the challenges that survivors experience and the realities and impacts of not being believed in the school or community setting,” Perrotto wrote in her nomination.
“When individuals work in separate systems serving victims of violent crime, it is sometimes difficult to see past their immediate roles and responsibilities to the larger, holistic impact on a survivor. Amaya diligently helped a great number of adults in her community and the systems she operates in to better understand the needs, impacts, and negative effects that a complicated system can have on a survivor of sexual violence.”
‘Meaningful and important’
Perrotto told LebTown that Rodriquez seemed at first blush like someone who not only talked a good game but would follow through with her goals.
“SARCC as an organization works with people of all ages. We have a long history of working even with child survivors of sexual abuse, and there are always challenges and barriers to doing that work,” she said. “Sometimes we see them a lot, sometimes we don’t.”
Rodriguez, she said, “seemed sincere. She was looking for support in the community, ways to help other students and young people who were struggling to find connections. That demonstrates grit to me. Real creativity, getting to the bottom of what she was looking for.
“Sometimes we don’t give young people enough credit. Trust that what they are looking for is meaningful and important.”
In a society where victims of sexual assault often aren’t believed or are blamed for their own abuse, “it takes a lot of persistence” to keep working toward a goal, Perrotto added. Rodriguez, she said, was certainly persistent.
“She successfully planned a speak-out event. That is a pretty meaningful thing,” she said. “It was attended by young people, her peers, and adult community members as well. Any time a survivor speak out happens, you can feel the palpable power that it takes to share your experiences. It takes a lot of courage to say that out loud — that can be a very healing experience for a community, and for the individual as well.
“I was really impressed the way she worked so hard to learn and understand so many different systems. People she interacted with didn’t know how to get support. She investigated the student handout to learn about reporting options. Those are big things.”
The Pathfinder “is considered a realty prestigious award in the community service circle. It’s something to be noted and celebrated,” Perrotto added.
“Sometimes when you’re advocating for your rights as your victim, it can be uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable for the survivors, it can be uncomfortable for the systems they’re working within,” she said. Rodriguez, however, has “stuck around as a student intern. It’s been a learning experience for us, too. We haven’t had high school internships before. But she’s interested in continuing to learn more about the issue. She’s interested in planning more speak-out events in the future.”
‘I really enjoy helping people’
A former Lebanon High School student, Rodriguez is finishing her senior year via cyberschool. After graduating, she plans to continue her advocacy work and activism with SARCC while attending college; eventually, she hopes to pursue a career in law enforcement or social work.
Meanwhile, she’s not done with the work she started last year. Since the event in April, Rodriguez has been focusing on school in anticipation of graduating this spring. She also became an intern at SARCC to continue her advocacy work.
“We are planning to do something in the spring. I can’t tell you the details yet,” she said. “But what I did last year definitely wasn’t the end.”
She isn’t sure yet what her future holds.
“As life goes by, I may want to do something different,” she said. “But for now, this is definitely want to pursue. This seems to be what I want to do with my life.
“I really enjoy helping people. I enjoy helping people to speak out on their truths. I love the work I’m doing.”
Sexual violence survivors in Lebanon and Schuylkill counties can connect with no-cost advocacy, counseling, and therapy services by contacting SARCC at 717-272-5308.
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