BY RICK KAZMER
United Way of the Laurel Highlands
When talking with Erika Brosig and Jessica Piro about their work at Victim Services, one word keeps coming up: trauma.
People experience physical trauma during harmful events such as vehicle accidents. Emotional trauma is harder to identify, but can be equally debilitating for people.
"Traumatic events effect everyone differently," Jessica Piro, the agency's safe housing coordinator, said. "Because of the pandemic, I might be OK, but you might not."
The agency is on the front lines of a domestic violence problem that officials there report is increasing. As a result, their services are expanding to meet the need.
About 10 million people experience domestic violence each year in the country, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That includes 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 7 men.
Victim Services provides a menu of services for victims of domestic violence and abuse -- both to men and women. The help includes emergency housing, advocacy, crisis counseling and children's grief counseling, to name a few.
Piro, and Brosig, the agency's chief operating officer, report increased numbers in people needing help locally, too. They also are seeing increased intensity in violence and other trauma-producing events. Oftentimes people the agency help have children.
"One of the things we are noticing across the state is that the intensity of crime is escalating," Brosig said.
Victim Services serves Cambria and Somerset counties. The agency recently moved to a larger property in Somerset to accommodate expanded services. It has been open for about six months.
The agency provides advocates who travel with domestic violence survivors to doctor appointments, court hearings and other meetings. Recently, they started working with a local mental health agency to provide physicians assistants at the Ferndale office so survivors can receive care at one place. Highlands Health Clinic will soon be providing basic medical screenings as well.
It's part of a network of agencies that work together, according to Piro and Brosig.
Victim Services is a United Way of the Laurel Highlands Partner Agency. United Way funds direct services to victims of violent crime, as well children's grief counseling.
Victim services operates on a $2.2 million budget, with a growing staff of 36 to meet demand for services. They helped more than 2,100 people last year.
The agency has a shelter program, and it's something the staff has identified as a growing concern. The people needing a safe place to live are fleeing domestic violence.
"I don't think you could put a number on it," Piro said, when asked how many people in the two-county area don't have a safe place to live.
Brosig said the biggest challenge in coming years could be funding. The federal government provides the largest part of the agency's budget, and changes on how the funding arrives has resulted in a 30% cut in that budget line that will be realized in coming years. She is hoping that changes will be made to address that challenge at the federal level.
"It could devastate every agency across the country," she said.
Brosig and Piro said their work includes a lot of stigmas and misconceptions.
One is "that we only serve women," Brosig said. Men experience violence and trauma as well, and can be helped at the agency.
Piro said trauma doesn't discriminate based on status, income, race or religion.
"There is no discrimination, no bias," she said, adding that many people assume that sexual assault can only happen to poor people and it doesn't "happen around here."
But Victim Services counselors, housing staff, advocates and partners have a calendar full of work to help people facing this problem -- evidence of the growing need, Piro and Brosig said.
When they talk about the people they work with, they both refer to them as survivors. They said the agency represents a fresh start, a safe place to reclaim lives.
"It's been amazing to watch the agency grow," Piro said.