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After slow start, sexual assault resource center is serving rural and tribal residents

Nonprofit provides education, services and funding to survivors
Kelsey Lansing, left, cultural outreach coordinator with the Sexual Assault Services Organization, and Laura Latimer, SASO executive director, talk about violence experienced by Native American women. The nonprofit’s office in Ignacio is getting its second wind after a yearlong closure because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In February 2020, Durango’s Sexual Assault Services Organization opened a new office in Ignacio, intent on providing in-person, local services to the community.

Then the coronavirus pandemic ramped up in La Plata County, closing the office doors for almost a year. After the delay, the Ignacio SASO office is, once again, ramping up its in-person services.

Ignacio has fewer than 1,300 people in southeast La Plata County and is surrounded on three sides by the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. The town hasn’t had a sexual assault resource center since Our Sister’s Keeper operated several years ago. Before SASO arrived, residents had only one option, a program offered by the tribe, for sexual assault services.

“There’s a real barrier, in terms of geographic miles, for folks that are in Bayfield, Ignacio and southern La Plata County to come to Durango. It can be really hard to make the commute this way,” said Laura Latimer, SASO executive director. “We felt it was really important to be able to be present in the community and to provide access for folks that are there.”

SASO, an education and advocacy nonprofit established in 1977, provides 24-hour crisis intervention and counseling, victim advocates during hospital and law enforcement visits, free trauma support groups, financial support for individual therapy and prosecution, and court advocates.

The Ignacio office, located in the ELHI Community Center, opened with $1,700 in financial assistance from the town of Ignacio as part of its grant funding.

Since early 2020, about eight people have come through the doors, including four who became clients. More sought assistance using the SASO hotline, said Kelsey Lansing, SASO cultural outreach coordinator and the primary staff member for the Ignacio office.

Lansing said the low visitation numbers were likely a result of the office’s closure. Staff members started reaching out to community groups, such as the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, in 2020, but were unable to continue with their community outreach plans.

Kelsey Lansing, cultural outreach coordinator with Sexual Assault Services Organization in Ignacio, shows the new area for private consultations in the office at the ELHI Community Center in Ignacio. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The office reopened in January for in-person visits from clients and community members during weekday business hours. If a staff member isn’t present, people can call the SASO hotline and schedule a time to come to the office, she said.

Staff members are continuing COVID-19 precautions, such as maintaining social distancing, increasing air ventilation and conducting temperature checks. Visitors are asked to wear masks, Lansing said.

“It was ... something we really wanted to do because we saw that a lot of the Durango resources weren’t reaching Ignacio,” Lansing said. “We wanted to open the office to either be the liaison or the organization to push those resources to Ignacio.”

Ignacio is a close-knit community, which can be a challenge when it comes to confidentiality. Staff members also need to be familiar with both state and tribal policies related to sexual violence cases, she said.

“Then there’s cultural competency, just understanding Native American culture as a whole but also specifically the Southern Ute culture. That’s so much of what the Ignacio area, I feel like, is based on,” she said.

The healing process has also been interrupted by the pandemic, particularly when it involves gathering places like the Bear Dance and sweat lodges, she said.

“I’ve seen how hard this pandemic has hit certain members of that community because they miss the bear dancing and the connection to who they are,” Lansing said. “It’s the sense of healing.”

The “Sing Our Rivers Red” display, which raises awareness about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States and Canada, is on display at the SASO office in Ignacio. The display aims to raise awareness and demand action for individuals who have been murdered or otherwise harmed and not received proper attention or justice. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In the future, Lansing envisions hosting training events for first responders, bystanders and law enforcement.

She aims to promote educational conversations about domestic relationships, broaching topics such as consent and cyber safety for youths.

“My goal is to really push our first-responder training,” Lansing said, which focuses on the first person who might come in contact with someone who has been assaulted. “I’m trying to get into the schools to see how we can talk about consent and healthy relationships,” she said. “It’s growing, I just need to do a little more digging.”


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