SHERIDAN — Just as few can handle what law enforcement officers see every day, few members of the general public could handle what Advocacy and Resource Center director Bonnie Young has witnessed in her more than 30 years at the nonprofit.
“What we do is ugly,” Young said of victim advocacy. “Nobody wants to look at it. It doesn’t make people feel good.”
Yet Young, volunteers and staff at the center answer phone calls at all times of the day — and night — to help victims of violent crime. They’ll meet victims at the hospital, sit through court hearings and listen to clients’ painful stories.
Young understands that pain. She found herself at the center when she was a victim in an abusive relationship. She started as a client in 1983, became a volunteer in 1984 and then an employee. That transition was quick, just about a year.
Now, she’s looking at a 30-plus-year career at the nonprofit in the rearview mirror. She’ll retire from her position as the ARC executive director in February.
Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson recalled when Young would tag along with law enforcement, riding shotgun on calls with the hopes of providing immediate assistance to victims. In that process, though, Young helped establish the now long-standing relationship the ARC and its staff have with the members of law enforcement.
“They would learn and understand what we do and why we do it,” ARC volunteer coordinator Yvonne Swanson said of Young’s efforts. “We don’t always see eye to eye, but there has been a mutual respect there. And we learned from them.”
Young, too, can remember times when relationships with law enforcement weren’t as positive. Those who came before her, who founded the nonprofit, made enemies and endured harsh criticism as they established the mission and gained footholds in the community.
“They took on the fights so those of us who came after didn’t have to,” Young said. “They made the path.”
The longtime director has created paths of her own for those who follow her.
Swanson credited Young with teaching her everything she knows. Young not only assisted victims, but also helped build a strong team at the ARC and teach those staff members how to do and be their best by exuding a sense of calm and confidence no matter the situation.
That practiced self-control came with the ups and downs of work as emotionally consuming as victim advocacy.
Young admitted that she wasn’t always as calm as she appeared; she’s experienced phases of burnout, too.
Sexual assault cases still provide the biggest challenge to advocates, who know that cases often come down to the victim’s word against the perpetrators. Even if it can be proven that sexual contact occurred, proving that it wasn’t consensual isn’t easy.
Advocates listen and provide answers and resources to clients without giving advice, but watching a sexual assault victim be re-victimized by a process that often includes people who don’t believe them, public details of sexual encounters and lengthy court battles is trying.
“It’s like taking all of your clothes off in public,” Young said of what victims endure. “They have to expose themselves if they come forward and report the crime. It’s painful.”
Thompson also recognized those challenges for victims. Oftentimes law enforcement officers focus on the investigation and prosecution of a crime with the belief the conclusion of those things will help make the victim whole.
“But really it’s efforts from people like Bonnie,” Thompson said. “She’s there making sure they have counseling, they have a place to stay, a new cellphone and other things they need. …It’s about helping the victim be successful.”
The work isn’t all painful, though. There are happy moments, too.
Young rejoices in seeing a cycle of violence broken. She’s seen families whose older generations abused younger generations, but the youngest go on to lead lives that include safe, healthy relationships, in part thanks to the efforts of those at the ARC who work with families.
The nonprofit director also recalled an instance when two young boys came into the center with their mom. They had their piggy banks with them and announced that they wanted to donate their money to the ARC.
“It blew me away,” Young said. “I didn’t know the boys or their mom. But they wanted to help us take care of people.”
As Young’s time at the ARC winds down, she remains positive about the world. She laughs, saying her biggest accomplishment is that she survived, and did so without becoming cynical.
She said she hopes to see the center continue to grow and thrive, and for the community to help with its efforts. Young noted that the center can always use more volunteers.
In terms of her successor, Thompson admitted the next director at the ARC will have some big shoes to fill.
“She never wanted the limelight, she just wanted to help people,” Thompson said.