Finding My Brave

This journey I have been on for the last four years has seen real moments of me finding my voice, my inner power, shedding insecurities and finding my brave. It is a journey that has and is still changing my life.

It is March 2014, and I am at the Sexual Assault Awareness Month kickoff. Legislators, reporters, state elected officials, advocates, and constituents filled the Kentucky Capitol rotunda. The building was such a powerful yet beautiful space. Marbled steps led to the second and third floors with soapstone handrails. Pictures of past elected officials and the Commonwealth of Kentucky countryside adorned the hallways. The ceiling lined with beautiful windows with colored stained glass.

Legislators walked up to a podium with an oversized sign behind it saying "Sexual Assault Awareness Month" in bold teal letters. They spoke about bills and policies they were passionate about sponsoring. Confidence, dedication and passion filled the air of the room surrounding the tall bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln that sat powerfully in the middle. I was so furious, but intrigued by a resolution sponsored by state Senator Denise Harper-Angel and spoke about implementing a mandatory audit of the rape kits that were sitting untested and un-submitted in Kentucky. She was passionate, gracious and kind. Her fiery red, pixie-cut hair matched her attitude well. The executive director of the Kentucky Sexual Assault Coalition, Eileen Recktenwald, introduced me to the senator. 

[quote]Her stature was feminine and petite, but the senator's power and importance revealed itself as she spoke. I knew at that very moment that I was in a space that was life-changing for me. The senator changed the way I viewed legislation. I now saw an opportunity to use a horrific crime that happened to me so long ago and "reframe it."[/quote]

I wanted to help Senator Angel obtain the votes she needed and sent out letters to all our legislators to help her to obtain them.


For almost 20 years, I didn’t talk about my truth. I was only four weeks into my freshman year in 1994, a time where most people did not have cell phones or computers in most homes. My dad left a message that my childhood dog was dying. He felt that Buffy was waiting for me and wondered if I could drive up the next morning. I was upset and understandably needed some air. I took a bag of cookies and a glass of milk to the front porch of my home. I lived in a tall and slender victorian home in Cherokee Park, which is still named one of the three best places to live in Louisville, KY.

The late summer warm breeze felt good on my face. I thought of the good old times with Buffy and how much I will miss him. Something told me to go in and it was as vivid as if someone where talking to me. I told myself, ‘Just a few minutes more. The air feels so nice.’ Within seconds, I felt like I was falling. My feet hit the ground below and I heard a voice in the back of my neck and it was at that moment I knew someone had me with force. A stranger committed a list of crimes with me that night. He also found me again the next semester by calling me at my new apartment that was all in my dad’s name and on the other end of town. He said he could always find me. This instilled a fear in me that he could be anywhere and everywhere all at once.

[quote]I lived two decades not telling many people or talking about it. I gave up that he would be caught and felt like it happened to my body and not my soul. By keeping what happened to me at a distance, it was easier for me to go on with life.[/quote]

My offender's sentencing to 33 years in prison made me feel safe enough to come forward and start speaking out for survivors publicly. In 2014, I signed up for the White House initiative It’s On Us and volunteered with the University of Louisville’s Prevent Educate Advocate on Campus and Community (PEACC) program. PEACC Director Sally Evans was excellent. She encouraged me to volunteer and speak at campus events. I then met Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (KASAP) and a 30-year advocate. She is 64 years old with raven black hair and the smoothest complexion I have ever seen. Eileen was nurturing and empowered me to believe in myself, learn about boundaries, and how no one else but me is in control of my truth. She gave me the tools to become the advocate I am today and has never made me feel like a victim. I am where I am now due to the support she and so many others gave me.


After gaining confidence and support through my volunteering work, I started writing to legislators. Before getting involved in this, I knew nothing about legislation or the legislative process, but I did have my truth. I have always written in journals, so during my quiet breaks, while working as a nanny, I decided to write down my truth. I had heard about how contacting your own elected officials is the place to start, so that’s what I did. I used Google to find out who my legislators were and to find their contact information. I was very nervous my first time sending a letter to my legislator, Kentucky State Senator Julie Raque Adams. I was sharing something so intimate with somebody else, so I was worried about how legislators would perceive my letter, especially knowing how many people still engage in survivor-shaming.

I received notes from legislators thanking me and saying they were sorry for what happened to me so long ago, but wanted me to know that they supported Senator Angel's bill. I remember crying in gratitude because these senators acknowledged me and the pain I had suffered. These legislators were now going to use their power to create change, and that was the moment of empowerment for me. I saw that I could help change laws and hopefully help to prevent crimes or allow people victimized by crimes to have access to a more balanced justice system. By helping to create much-needed change, I began to feel empowerment I had never felt before.

[quote]My mind was racing and my heart was pounding with excitement for future generations. These new policies and laws would not save me from the pain I experienced, but they would help people victimized by crimes and their loved ones for generations to come.[/quote]

In 2016, then-Auditor Adam Edelen asked me to speak at a press conference he was holding about Resolution 20. He was passionate about implementing the resolution, which required his office to audit the untested sexual assault kits in the state. At first, I didn’t understand the terms “backlog,” “untested” and “un-submitted,” but I learned them as I advocated for reform. I then started speaking at more events. I went to counties around Kentucky for stakeholder meetings to talk about why testing all sexual assault kits is essential to me. Through my growing network, I was introduced to more advocates, such as Ilse Knecht with, who helps to end the backlog around the globe, and Jayann Sepich from, who helped pass legislation requiring the collection of DNA upon arrest for felony crimes in New Mexico and 32 other states. She is an incredible, courageous advocate, and I was proud to partner with her to advocate and testify in Indiana for DNA legislation passed into law and similar legislation which still needs to pass in Kentucky.

Advocacy has been a journey for me, and I have learned from everyone I have met along the way. I would not be where I am today if not for the unique relationships I have made and so many people willing to lift me up and share their podium with me in hopes I may be able to pay it forward.

I returned to college to reclaim an education that was stolen from me so long ago. This is my junior year in college and my hope is to secure a career where I may continue to help others rise above the crime that happened to them and rise above their fears by connecting them to the people who can help them in their journey. These last few years, I have learned how to build bridges to bring people together for better policies, awareness, education and laws.

Last year, I worked on a bill with Kentucky Senator Julie Raque Adams and we changed what constitutes rape and sodomy in Kentucky. I try to uplift others who were victimized by crime so they may rise.

[quote]With every stroke of a pen to a legislator, every call I make to support or oppose a bill, every time I speak out, testify for change in legislation, help a survivor, overcome my fears, go into my community and spread awareness and education, my offender loses his power over me.[/quote]

When people use their position and power to help others and help women climb, we are building stronger communities so she will rise.

I Am Unstoppable

Cynthia Austin is the founder and CEO of Shyne, an organization based in San Diego, USA, created by women, for women, and in collaboration with those who’ve gotten out of, or are seeking to leave sexual exploitation.[/hl]

When I was a little girl, my heart was pure and trusting. In those days, my bare feet in the grass, wind blowing through my hair, and sun rays kissing my cheeks were all I needed to feel comforted, happy and safe. It was a time when love lived in the fairy tales of my mind, a distant place in my imagination, still untouched by life experiences.


My imagination gave me reprieve from the verbal abuse those I loved inflicted upon me: “You’re worthless, stupid and good for nothing.” My fantasies became a way of living free from the abusers’ control over me. I built a fortress around my heart and pushed away anyone who attempted to get close to me. As my heart hardened, ongoing suffering became a daily affair. Through all my abusive relationships playing out over and over like a track set on repeat, there was a part of me that chose to patch my heartbreak and look for my lessons.

One lesson I’ve come to understand is that the roles I’ve played kept me bonded to my abusers by limiting my ability to listen, care for, and protect myself. The rebel, problem child, victim and caregiver were all roles given to me. They are not who I am, nor who I wanted to be. My journey towards healing has taught me a great deal about adaptability.

[quote]I’ve learned that loving myself, with all my battle scars, allows others to love me more fully.[/quote]

Over time, I’ve realized I’m not less than or stupid or deserving of abuse. Abuse happened to me, but doesn’t define me. All of these experiences are intricately woven into the fabric of my life. A part of my story, not the full story.

Each time I’ve looked within for the reasons I was abused it has led me towards personal growth, inner awakenings and new opportunities. My abuse has pushed me to be honest with myself, discover my passions, and helped me find grace through spiritual connection. I’m able to embrace authenticity, dance wildly, dive deeply into love and emerge each time closer to the real me.

There’s a saying “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I also think it goes a step further: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger and wiser.”

Wisdom is my salvation, restoration and devotion. I am a truth seeker, a mother, a daughter and a friend, an innovator, a teacher, an artist and an advocate. I am a lover, a survivor, a healer and a woman.

I am unstoppable!

This is written to all the brave survivors who continue to believe in themselves despite what others say and love themselves more fully with every mistake they make.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Reflections on the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti

At 4:53 pm, January 12, 2010 an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale struck the island of Hispaniola, comprising the two nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, 15 miles southwest of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

“In ten seconds, everything the population took decades to build was destroyed,” recalled Goldin Institute Global Associate Malya Villard Appolon, co-founder of KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims). With additional damage from two aftershocks hours later, some three million people were impacted, one-third of the Haitian population. Over a million people were displaced as their homes were destroyed and between 85,000 and 316,000 were killed, based on varying estimates offered by USAID and the Haitian government with international relief agencies.

Global Associate Malya Villard Appolon, founder of KOFAVIV, reflects on the 2010 Earthquake.

Reflecting on the recently passed ninth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, Malya recalled, “On that day, nobody had a roof on top of their head. Everybody took refuge on the streets and parks, which caused what we called ‘the camp phenomenon’ and led to women enduring inhuman and degrading conditions. At that time, basic services were non-existent, insecurity was the norm, and women faced very difficult situations.” Assisted by the Goldin Institute as well as various international NGOs, Malya and her colleagues at KOFAVIV not only provided basic reproductive and medical assistance to displaced female survivors of sexual assault and rape, but also trained male allies to be guardians of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence.

The months and years since the earthquake have seen additional disasters, natural as well as man-made. In October of the same year as the earthquake, Haiti was hit by a cholera epidemic following the discovery of cases in the areas around the Artibonite River, the longest in the country and a major source of drinking water. Identified as a South Asian strain of the cholera bacteria, the disease was quickly traced to Nepalese soldiers who were stationed in Haiti as peacekeepers at that time. Before the epidemic could be mitigated, 770,000 Haitians were sickened and 9,200 died.

Two years later, Hurricane Sandy inflicted further physical damage on the island of Hispaniola, setting Haiti even further back on its slow march toward rehabilitation. Then last February, an internal investigation by Oxfam UK was made public, revealing systemic, widespread use of sex workers - many underage - by Oxfam foreign staff since the 2010 earthquake.

Despite the loss of their physical offices due to insecurity and death threats, the volunteers of KOFAVIV and the women they serve endure and persist. Exiled to the United States, Malya’s dedication and connection to the KOFAVIV community is unwavering.

“Even after nine years of these unfortunate events, the situation in Haiti remains the same,” she observed. “The consequences of the earthquake continue to haunt women. Their misery is not over. Even today, they are homeless and their safety is more at stake. They are raped every day.”

Haiti Update: Moving Women to Safety

On behalf of KOFAVIV, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, I want to share this update and our appreciation with the global network of partners of the Goldin Institute.  Thanks to your support, I am pleased to report that we have successfully moved more than twenty women who were under immediate threat to safety.

Sadly, there has been a rapid uptick in political and gang-related violence in Port au Prince and across the Caribbean over the last few weeks. In Haiti, communtities and neighborhoods that are already disadvantaged, like Martissant and Grand Ravine, were hit the hardest.  As usual, this violence disproportionally effects women and girls.  As a known center for victims of sexual violence in Haiti, our office was inundated with women and girst seeks refuge from the violence and sexual assualt.  Given that the violence was wide-spread and our lack of space for all of these women at our offices, we needed to take emergency action to relocate the women and girls seeking refuge with us.

[quote]With no good options for providing safe houses in Port au Prince, we turned to our partners in the Goldin Institute's global network for support in taking quick action to move these women and girls to safety outside the city. Thanks to your support, more than 20 women and girls are now safe.[/quote]

Today, I wanted to share some of their stories with you.  Please note that we have obscured the faces and names for safety.

Haiti0418000bI am 70 years old and I have lived in current neighborhood since 1982 with my 6 children. My oldest child was in the hospital for a life-saving surgery for her kidneys.  On my way home from the hospital, bandits appeared with gunmen shooting in front of me as I neared my home. The bandits had just left my house.


Haiti0417008I have 4 kids and I live in Grand Ravine with my husband. Now I'm going to do everything for the kids because bandits in the area have shot their dad while there was a massacre in the Great Ravine. When it happened, I was going to to the market to sell hypolite fire logs. While I was there, the bandits came to the market with their weapons and I worried about my kids so I ran home. I can't stay at my house anymore and I can't sleep at night. I have a baby boy in my hand; I could not find a safe place to go with them until I found KOFAVIV. They helped me find a place outside the city to take my kids until the violence ends.


Haiti0418000I take care of 6 children by myself because their father died. I went to the streets to pick up plastic bottles to sell so I could care for my kids. Bandits with weapons came to my house and broke all that I had in the house. They beat me, and ever since then then I have a sore stomach because of a big kick in my stomach. I left home because I don’t want them to come back and kill me with the children. At first I was able to sleep with my kids in a friend's house but, I wasn't able to be in the house when she wasn't there so we'd have to be on the streets all day. We needed a new place to stay.


Haiti0418003I live in the Grand Ravine with my 2 sons. Every day and every night I had to move to a different home. Children are crying because I'm running with them. Every time we turned around the area became incomprehensible to me.  These bandits have no fear of the police and the day is full with shooting. With these bandits in Grand Ravine, its only a matter of time before we're going to be raped and tortured. The bandits even call my phone as they go into my home. Because I was making a living by doing laundry at my home, now I can't find a place where I can afford it. KOFAVIV helped me find a new place for now.



My name is Marie and I'm from Grand-Raven, where I grew up since I was small. I have been subjected to many acts of violence in the area. I have 2 children, one son and one daugther, who live with me in this very difficult time. Bandits in the area of ​​killed my husband and violated my sister. These villians also tried to attack me, but I escaped with only the clothes on my back. My child cannot go to school because he is hiding with me. The bandits are still using my home as a base.


Haiti0418005My name is Roselène I'm 33 years old. I have a child living with me and mysister in the neighborhood called Village of God. I have been subjected to extensive violence in the area because of these ​​bandits who came to my home. They violated my sister and tried to violate me too.  They beat me and I am in the streets now, and I cannot return to my house.


While these women were all subjected to violence and fear that will be difficult to heal from, thanks to your support they have been removed from this immediate danger for now. With your continued support, we will bring them back home when the violence is under control and help them rebuild their lives.

Thank you to everyone who made a donation, especially Sam Cardella and our friends at World Wings, for making this emergency rescue possible.

Continuing the Fight Against Gender-Based Violence

In recent weeks, the threats to the Commission of Women Victims for Victims team (KOFAVIV), and the women whom they serve have only become more treacherous in the face of increased gang violence, and shootings. Nearly two dozen women have been assaulted in the brewing climate of political instability with half that number still stranded at KOFAVIV's office space awaiting relocation to safer environments.  

[quote]"Emergency support from the Goldin Institute is the only way we can get these women out of harms way right now. Fights between armed groups have been going on for some time, but this week is worse than normal. We know there are many more women are unable to come to our office or get taken by us to hospitals."[/quote]

Fourteen years since co-founding Haiti’s Commission of Women Victims for Victims, or KOFAVIV in its Creole acronym, Malya Villard is now living in Philadelphia, having been forced to leave her country for her own safety. The longtime Goldin Institute Global Associate has now received a “Green Card” allowing her to live and work in the United States legally, but even with that good news, her heart and mind still long for Haiti and the work of KOFAVIV.

Based now in Philadelphia, Malya's access to verifiable information isn't as consistently available as before but she remains in touch with the team in Port au Prince daily. In effect, KOFAVIV is now operating a under a siege with no obvious relief in the near future. "It's always a matter of securing attention for our condition and monies to ensure safety and support for affected women," she explains. "The struggle is about holding those committing the violence and shootings at bay, away from our women. The kids are always the ones who suffer the most in these times."



The most recent global headlines from Haiti have been focused on ever-widening sex scandals involving aid workers with Oxfam UK and now Save the Children implicated in the sexual exploitation of civilian Haitian women and girls to whom the aid workers were supposed to provide humanitarian assistance. Against that unseemly backdrop, the remaining staff and leaders of KOFAVIV continue to provide security and also respond to survivors of sexual violence.

Though thousands of miles away, Malya has not ceased to be a resolute spokesperson for KOFAVIV and advocate for the well-being of Haitian women. From her perspective, the last six months in particular have been especially challenging. “Things are not going too well,” Malya notes by phone one early Saturday morning before going to work in Philadelphia.

[quote]“I may not be there in person with my sisters, but we are on the phone constantly. We coordinate every day. Women are still being victimized, and struggling for everyday survival.”[/quote]

A signature program of KOFAVIV are the male security patrols, trained and gender-sensitized men who go out in teams in urban and rural areas as well as pockets of displacement throughout the country to provide safe passage as well as accompaniment to Haitian females. The program started in partnership with the Goldin Institute shortly after the 2010 earthquake. “They’re still being trained and are motivated to do the work,” observes Malya. “The male patrols and the KOFAVIV staff are working. Though the men are most often without any funding, they continue to train, patrol and remain active in the community because they still have families, and family members who are risk of assault, or worse.”

As the humanitarian and development situation in Haiti has drifted further from the public conscience over the past several years, so has the stream of monetary assistance. “The money we used to receive just isn’t coming in anymore,” she laments. “Our only support, consistently, is from the Goldin Institute.”

The Goldin Institute gratefully acknowledges the ongoing support of our partners like the Flordia Chapter of World Wings International who help empower the work of Global Associate Malya Villard Appolon and her team at KOFAVIV.

Haiti Girls3 640 0

According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, four out of five people who seek help at its Pran Men’m clinic in Haiti are survivors of rape and sexual assault. An average of 80 sexual violence survivors are seen there per month. Only since 2005, the year of KOFAVIV’s founding, has rape been a crime in Haiti.

Just as reliable lines of communication are still elusive across that nation, KOFAVIV’s team is managing to operate without office phones, though the organization still maintains an office and can use online video communication services. As female victims of sexual violence, assault, and other interpersonal crimes still come to KOFAVIV for assistance, the team now uses their personal phones to receive messages and coordinate the response. Additionally, KOFAVIV team members proactively go to the hospitals and do intake themselves for people coming for treatment and aid, then transport them back to the KOFAVIV offices for continued support.

As Malya identifies them, the three main struggles impacting KOFAVIV and organizations like it serving Haitian women at risk of violence are: lack of financial resources; often unreliable communications via phone and Internet; and a lack of physical space to house victims.

Despite the obstacles, Malya and her colleagues insist they cannot stop.

[quote]“I was one of those victims. I was a victim, two of my children were victims, and we didn’t find our justice. So, I nor my agents at KOFAVIV will not stop until we find justice for all of the women we help.”[/quote]

Visiting Partners in Haiti: a photographic update

We are pleased to share this opportunity to follow along with Diane and Travis as they visit partners in Haiti in the photo journal below.

The photos are from a visit in April 2017 to see our partners at KOFAVIV and IJDH as well as learning more about the work of Fr. Joseph Philippe and his visionary work in Fondwa.


Reconstructing Haiti: Presentation by Malya Villard

We are pleased to share this broadcast of Malya Villard-Appolon's lecture in Chicago on April 22, 2014 at Loyola University.  In this public lecture, Malya spoke about her advocacy work from the courtrooms and IDP camps in Haiti to venues around the world including the UN Commission on Human Rights, the U.S. State Department and the IAHRC. Malya was awarded the 2012 CNN Hero of the Year for her work as co-founder of KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims).  

KOFAVIV is a Haitian grassroots organization that provides social and legal support in an effort to combat sexual violence against women and girls. Based on our partnership with KOFAVIV to fight gender-based violence in Port au Prince after the earthquake, we know first-hand the power and effectiveness of Malya and her team in Haiti.