VALLEY CHARITIES: AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE : Rape Prevention Program Fights to Survive Tough Times

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was once a time when Vision Empowerment Inc.--a nonprofit rape and violence prevention agency--offered free seminars to the public, hosted rape-awareness rock concerts and provided free psychological help to the women enrolled in its programs.

But with the advent of the current economic recession and the devastating Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, the agency has had to cut some corners to stay afloat.

"This organization owes me a lot of money," said Tevis Verrette, the agency's president and founder who has been footing much of the agency's bill with his own savings.

Verrette founded the organization eight years ago after several women friends were sexually assaulted.

His workshops teach women to protect themselves from attackers by any means possible. The organization's brochures boast that 19 women--out of the more than 3,000 the group has trained--were attacked after graduating from the program and that each of the would-be attackers had to be hospitalized because of injuries inflicted by their intended victims.

Verrette's workshops and lectures teaching rape-prevention techniques are given to corporate groups, classes and on a one-to-one-basis.

"We've had to learn to survive on public donations," Verrette said, noting that the organization used to collect most of its funds from corporations who would ask Vision Empowerment to conduct workshops for their employees.

For example, Cal State Northridge was one of the organization's biggest clients. But when the earthquake devastated the campus, the university had to stop sponsoring workshops there.

Also, Verrette said, donations and volunteers--once abundant--are down by more than 50%.

Now, most of the agency's money comes from tuitions paid by individuals taking the courses, said Verrette.

In the last year, Verrette said he was forced to lay off half of his 10-member staff and to learn to run the organization more efficiently, an aspect of his plight that he called "the blessing of this disaster."

Now, the staff at Vision Empowerment always uses both sides of papers. Women who go through the workshops pay for their own graduation parties.

But the true key to survival for nonprofit organizations, Verrette said, is for such agencies to ally themselves with other groups with similar goals. Vision Empowerment is currently trying to work out a plan with the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women.

Verrette's organization already refers clients to the Valley Trauma Center in the case of women who recently have been sexually assaulted.

"We have to look to other groups and offer to supplement them," Verrette said.

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