Steubenville Rape Victim Converts Tragedy to Women’s Shelter Charity

The girl who was sexually assaulted by small-town football players has used her unwanted fame to fund a domestic violence prevention program.

steubenville city schools

The Steubenville school system may have failed to teach its football players to respect the dignity of fellow human beings, but the players’ victim somewhere learned the art of pulling dignity from tragedy. (Photo: Jason Cohn/Reuters)

Sara Benincasa is a blogger, comedian, and author of 'Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom.'

West Virginia women’s shelter director Patricia Flanigan doesn’t usually receive letters from Canada, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, and other countries—and certainly not all in the course of one month.

This month is different.

Yes, March is Women’s History Month. But the month-long commemoration of female achievement is presumably not the reason Flanigan and the YWCA Family Violence Prevention Program of Wheeling, West Virginia, have received international donations on a scale unprecedented in the YWCA of Wheeling’s 107-year history.

No, this unexpected attention has come from a very special and unfortunate source: The teenage victim in the notorious Steubenville rape case.

Two weeks ago, the undisclosed minor and her family announced via their lawyer, Bob Fitzsimmons, that they would prefer all donations to her legal fund instead be sent to Madden House, a YWCA women’s shelter in West Virginia.

Granted, Fitzsimmons did the case pro bono, but the victim could have certainly collected a good sum of money if she’d chosen to keep the donations herself.

By using her unwanted fame to direct attention to a good cause, the Steubenville victim may improve the lives of other victims of rape and domestic violence. Flanigan calls the response “very touching,” but adds, “It’s very sad that it takes a tragedy to create this type of awareness.”

Instead, the teenager chose “to educate the world,” as Flanigan tells TakePart.

The money will all go toward furthering the mission the YWCA of Wheeling launched in 1906, when a group of local Methodist women founded the organization to assist low-income women. The Family Violence Prevention Program wasn’t formally launched until the 1970s, but by that point the YWCA of Wheeling had actually been serving victims of domestic violence for 70 years.

These 70 years were in an era when domestic abuse was simply not discussed in polite company—or any company at all. It’s still a taboo topic in many circles—Flanigan calls it “a hard subject for many people to understand.”

More recently, the FVPP partnered with local high schools in West Virginia to start a teen dating violence prevention program. The campaign wasn’t a popular move at first, but it did lead to implementing bullying curricula in a few local middle schools.

As for what actually happens at the FVPP women's shelter, Madden House, the short answer is “a lot.” In addition to housing women affected by domestic violence, Madden House has space for their children. The house is staffed 24 hours a day, as is the affiliated crisis hotline, and a child advocate is on hand at all times to assist families affected by domestic violence.

By using her unwanted fame to direct attention to a good cause, the Steubenville victim may improve the lives of other victims of rape and domestic violence.

Flanigan calls the international response “very touching,” but adds, “It’s very sad that it takes a tragedy to create this type of awareness.”

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