On call: Lowell native counsels sexual assault survivors by phone

Syaraya Huon, of Lowell, has volunteered at The Center for Hope and Healing, Inc. for nearly a year.

This story was originally published by Nicole Defeudis of The Lowell Sun on April 12, 2020. Read here.

LOWELL — No matter the time of night, Syaraya Huon is ready to listen.

She’ll listen for 15 minutes, or even an hour. She’ll let someone rant, or she’ll share their silence. When a survivor of sexual assault calls, Huon does much more than answer: she believes.

Twice a week, Huon volunteers at The Center for Hope and Healing (CHH), a Lowell-based nonprofit that helps those affected by sexual violence. From 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., Huon answers a 24/7 hotline and medical calls.

“What we are trained to do and … what I think is the most human thing to do, is to validate,” Huon said. “Typically with the stigma of rape, not a lot of people believe the survivor,” she added later.

The CHH, formerly known as the Rape Crisis Services of Greater Lowell, was founded in 1976 by a group of physicians, social workers and students. The nonprofit provides counseling, medical and legal advocacy, and other resources for sexual assault survivors.

“Here at CHH, we talk about ‘I believe you.’ Everything is ‘we believe you, I believe you,’” Huon said.

Statistically, 1 in 6 women — and 1 in 33 men — has faced sexual assault (attempted or otherwise) in their lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“We’re definitely there to comfort them, and make sure they’re not alone and that their rights are advocated for,” Huon said.

Hotline calls are much like a counseling session, Huon explained. Often, survivors seek out a CHH advocate when they are experiencing a flashback.

“Something will happen within their day where they get a trigger, and they don’t know how to direct their energy toward that,” Huon said.

Other times, Huon will help callers with “escape plans.” CHH advocates can refer callers to local shelters, arrange rides via taxi or Uber, and recommend survivors speak with a counselor or therapist in person. Volunteers go “above and beyond” to ensure the callers are safe, Huon said.

Hotline and medical calls are dispatched to CHH volunteers by a third-party answering service. Typically, those at the CHH only know a hotline caller’s first name.

Huon takes the calls from her cell phone at home. Often, there is a sense of urgency to late-night calls, she said.

“People’s minds are way different at night,” she said. “I like to be that person there for them at 3 a.m. And I would be like that for my friends and family too.”

On medical calls, CHH volunteers would typically respond to emergency rooms to advocate for those who have faced sexual assault. They help file police reports, explain terminology and comfort the victim, Huon said.

“We want to make sure that their traumas are being recognized, and that they’re being treated like people who actually have gone through something,” she said.

Huon has volunteered as a CHH advocate for nearly a year. She graduated from Lowell High School in 2013, and is currently pursuing a psychology degree at Middlesex Community College.

“Since I was a kid, I knew that I was really good with people. … It kind of has always been my calling,” she said.

CHH Development Manager Dimitrios Booras has known Huon for years, and knew she would be a good fit for the volunteer program. “I’m still always amazed at how compassionate and caring she is, and how dedicated she is to her community,” he said.

Huon is inspired by the teachers and guidance counselors who mentored her growing up. “That always kind of inspired me to be that same person, to give back …” she said.

She is also motivated by friends and family members who have experienced sexual violence.

“I know how hard it is for them to have a voice, so I’d like to be that voice for them, or that person that they know believes them,” she said.

“I definitely want them to know there’s hope. And there’s healing,” she said.

To reach the CHH’s 24/7 hotline for sexual assault survivors, call 800-542-5212.