By BRUCE EDWARDS
Regina Kohlhepp and Emme O’Rourke are inviting you to “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” or more to the point, in the shoes of women and girls who have been the victims of domestic violence.
The first “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” fundraiser in the state will be held in downtown Rutland on Oct. 18, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. All proceeds go to support the Rutland County Women’s Network.
The event encourages everyone (and especially men) to take a symbolic walk in the shoes of a woman who has survived domestic violence.
Although similar events held around the country encourage participants to don a pair of red high heels, what’s important is the walk itself.
“What a terrific idea to put a lighthearted spin on a very difficult subject,” Kohlhepp said.
Kohlhepp, a registered nurse, and O’Rourke, a student at the University of Vermont, met at one of the Gift of Life Marathon blood drives at the Paramount. The two of them hit it off so well that they decided to find a community project to work on together. That project, in the making for two years, turned out to be Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.
The event was started 14 years ago by Frank Baird, a California rape crisis advocate, as a way to elicit the help of men to do their part to end sexualized violence.
Kohlhepp said the event’s goal is to go beyond awareness of domestic and gender violence. Too often today, she said children grow up in an environment where abuse or violent behavior is seen as the norm.
“The idea behind it is to create funding for education, because there needs to be more prevention,” Kohlhepp said. “Raising awareness is simply not enough. People are aware. We need to get past that if we’re going to change the numbers.”
Kohlhepp ticks off a sobering number: Rutland County had the highest domestic violence homicide rate in the state in 2013.
Nationwide, more than one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of domestic violence — either rape, assault or stalking by a partner.
A Rutland native who is now a UVM junior, O’Rourke took up the cause after working as a para-educator in the city school system.
“I immediately realized how important and how much of an impact a cause like this can make,” she said. “Knowing sexual assault and domestic abuse, drugs and poverty are all related, having the ability to educate kids in the early years will help prevent what’s happening now.”
Avaloy Lanning, executive director of the Rutland County Women’s Network, said this will be the biggest fundraising event in the history of the organization.
Lanning said the downtown walk will hopefully “get that dialogue going in our community about what’s happening in our community about domestic violence and sexual violence.”
She said Walk a Mile in Her Shoes will also serve to reintroduce the Rutland County Women’s Network to the community.
Last year, the RCWN served more than 600 individuals with emergency and transitional shelter, counseling, advocacy in the court system, and education services.
The money raised by the event will be used to expand services, including hiring a youth advocate to work with children in crisis and to teach young people about healthy relationships.
A byproduct of the event will also forge a closer relationship between the RCWN and its business partners.
Lanning said she gets calls every day from women who miss work because of abuse, “but don’t know how to have that conversation with their boss.”
She also gets calls from employers who say they suspect one of their employees is being abused but they, too, don’t know how to broach the subject with their employee.
“So we want to be a resource to those people in our community that need it,” Lanning said, “and not just those that need it for services, but [also] those that need it for education.”
O’Rourke’s focus has been getting teams of area high school and college students involved in the walk.
While most victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse are females, males too are victims of abuse by family members or significant others.
“So that’s a huge part we want to make people aware of — that this goes both ways,” she said.
The Oct. 18 walk starts at the corner of Center Street and Merchants Row. Walkers then proceed up Center Street, across Wales Street, down Washington Street to Merchants Row and back to Center Street.
Kohlhepp said by mid-September, more than 125 people had signed up to walk, with the goal to double that number by the day of the event.
Anyone interested in participating in the Oct. 18 event can register online at www.rcwn.org. The cost is $25 for adults and $15 for students. All participants receive a T-shirt.
Registration forms can also be mailed to RCWNS, P.O. Box 313, Rutland, Vt. 05702.