By Cassidy Klein
Thanksgiving and the holidays, with all of their festivity and collective cheeriness, are right around the corner. For many victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), however, this season can often be painful and isolating.
Flushing/Fresh Meadows native Angelica Ramirez, a survivor of abuse, understands this firsthand. Her nonprofit organization, Vessel of Life, offers healing services to women and children CSA victims. They’ll be hosting a free Thanksgiving dinner for survivors Nov. 22 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Queens. The location has yet to be announced.
Ramirez said she wants to be “an extension of love” for victims who would otherwise spend Thanksgiving alone.
“Most [survivors] want to have happy holidays like everyone does, but they have two choices,” said Ramirez. “You can either re-expose yourself to the trauma, or you can isolate yourself because you choose to not be retraumatized. So that is really the value and the essence of this Thanksgiving dinner, is saying to them, just come. Let us serve you. Let’s create a family-like environment, and just celebrate and give thanks.”
According to a study conducted by Darkness to Light — a CSA prevention organization — 90 percent of CSA victims know their abusers, which makes the holidays especially difficult as abusers may are more likely to be present. One out of 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18, according to the study, and nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults occur to children ages 17 and under.
Ramirez said she was abused as a child by several uncles and cousins. As an adolescent and adult, she tried anything she could to move past the trauma, including experimentation with alcohol and drugs. Now, she has overcome her trauma in a healthy manner and was inspired to start Vessel of Life in January 2018.
“I’m now at a great place in my life and really have been able to heal,” Ramirez said. “It was just this moment of epiphany of, it’s time to give back. Other women would share their stories with me, there was something about me that made them feel comfortable. I realized that I had something to offer.”
Vessel of Life focuses on healing, education and empowerment for victims. This includes free counseling via phone or face-to-face meetings and virtual peer networks of survivors at various stages of their “healing journey,” according to Ramirez.
Women survivors can learn about methods of self-care through counseling and the psychology of trauma so they can understand the science of what they are experiencing.
“We do believe that every woman, despite their circumstances or trauma, has purpose in their life,” she said. “And God wants every woman to live an abundant life. That all changes and becomes a struggle because of trauma. The more I speak to other women, different survivors, I realize that there’s such a need [for ways to heal].”
Vessel of Life is not religious, Ramirez said, although she does discuss having a personal relationship with Jesus with survivors if that’s something they are interested in. If not, she meets them and tailors the counseling to fit their needs.
“The title Vessel of Life means that we, women, are a vessel,” Ramirez said. “And that vessel needs to be whole to be able to impart that life into other people and into your own life. We are constantly growing and evolving as women and can find a place of wholeness.”
The organization has a strong virtual presence and is working to partner with national organizations to provide further support and services for survivors. It already works with shelters in New York and New Jersey and is looking to reach out to high schools and colleges.
“We’re just hoping to be a catalyst to facilitate that healing journey,” said Ramirez. “We call it a journey. We meet each person where they’re at in a way where we’re not re-traumatizing, but we’re helping them to overcome, to heal, and even thrive in the life that they’re living.”
Ramirez said Vessel of Life is looking for volunteers to help with the dinner.
Reach reporter Cassidy Klein by e-mail at cklei