Community called to ‘start by believing’ - Republic-Times | News

Community called to ‘start by believing’

By on April 18, 2018 at 2:24 pm

Those in attendance at Sunday’s “Start by Believing” event at the Monroe County Courthouse in Waterloo take the pledge to believe victims of sexual assault. (Sean McGowan photo)

It doesn’t heal the permanent scars borne of unbearable emotional trauma. It doesn’t erase the vivid, horrible memories countless sexual assault victims relive day after day.

But to start by believing, a small but life-altering act of kindness, is to show these victims they have someone they can turn to for support. 

Sexual assault victim Kelilah shares her story with those in attendance at Sunday’s Start by Believing event at the Monroe County Courthouse in Waterloo. (Sean McGowan photo)

About 20 people in the community stood in solidarity to promote this concept on a cold Sunday afternoon outside the Monroe County Courthouse in Waterloo. 

Members of law enforcement, EMS personnel and community members joined the Monroe County office of Call for Help in pledging to start by believing.

Call for Help is a southern Illinois agency that provides services such as counseling and case management to sexual assault victims. During Sunday’s event, Call for Help medical and legal advocate Traci James lamented that people question assault victims’ testimony.

“It really does make a difference for the victims,” said James, who works out of the Monroe County office. “Hopefully with us being here, more people will come forward.”

To emphasize the point, sexual assault victim Kelilah shared the story of how someone believing her testimony led her on a different path. Kelilah recalled the abuse starting in foster care when she was just 3 years old and continuing until she was 5.

“In spite of the evidence, in spite of the bruises and all of the indicators, my abuser was not prosecuted … His defense was that I was somehow asking for it,” she said.

 Kelilah married a man who would continue the cycle of abuse and who, she said, “knew how to manipulate the legal system.” 

“I would try to speak out about what was going on, but people would discredit me to the point where I started to question my own sanity,” she said. “It’s hard for the community to understand the mindset of someone who has been victimized.”

Eventually, the abuse escalated to a point where she was hospitalized for several months. 

Kelilah chose to go into hiding for the next 10 years after being released from the hospital.

“It wasn’t until he found me that I went and found Traci,” she said of seeking helping from James. “She asked me to tell her my story, and the whole time I was speaking, I expected her to (gesture), ‘I don’t believe you. You’re full of it.’

“Instead, she leaned forward and said, with all sincerity, ‘I believe you.’”

Kelilah said James’ response gave her the confidence to work with and trust James.

“My ex will never be prosecuted, but in the past year, he has lost the game. I’ve learned to start living life again,” she said.

At the beginning of the event, participants signed a pledge that captures the theme of the national Start by Believing campaign, a movement launched in 2011 during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is observed in April.

“When someone tells me they were raped or sexually assaulted, I pledge to start by believing,” the pledge reads.

State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) rallied the crowd, having everyone read the pledge aloud. He also shared his support of the Start by Believing Campaign, having served as a Marine Corps prosecutor who dealt with sexual assault cases.

“I truly am grateful for all the work you’re doing. It’s so important. We have to believe sexual assault victims,” Schimpf said. 

Also during the event, Monroe County State’s Attorney Chris Hitzemann read a proclamation declaring the first Wednesday of April as Start By Believing Day throughout the county. 

The Monroe County Board of Commissioners signed the proclamation during its April 2 board meeting. In the proclamation, it shares that as few as one in five sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement and less than three percent of cases result in a conviction.

“You don’t know how many times (the victims) have been told it’s their problem and no one else’s,” Kelilah expressed.

Immediately following the event, Michelle Cates, Call for Help program director for the sexual assault victims care unit, said she was encouraged by the number of people in attendance.

“I thought it was an amazing turnout given the weather,” she expressed.

Call for Help’s Monroe County office opened in the fall and is located at 219A W. Mill Street in Waterloo. The office includes three full-time employees who can provide support to sexual assault victims.

To schedule an appointment or for more information, go to, contact the help line at 618-397-0975, or call the Waterloo office at 939-0115. 

Office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Sean McGowan

Sean is a die-hard Cubs fan, despite the relentless peer pressure coming from the rest of the Republic-Times staff. He and his wife, Jacqui, have been married for two years. Originally from the west suburbs of Chicago, Sean and his wife moved down to Normal to attend Illinois State University and stayed central Illinois residents for the past four years.