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SLO RISE director survived sexual assault as a child. It became her life’s work

Jennifer Adams has been intimately involved with sexual assault for most of her life — both as a victim and in the field helping others.

She was sexually abused as a child and then raped as a teen, a personal experience that drove her to seek help.

“When I arrived here in San Luis Obispo in 1989, as an adult, I went to the yellow pages and found a crisis hotline,” Adams said. “It took me weeks to dial the number and then I didn’t know what to say once I did.”

She didn’t recall what the person said, “but I knew they cared, and that was hugely important.”

Adams has spent the past 15 years in SLO County leadership roles, helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. In total, she’s worked in the field for 20 years.

On June 28, Adams will retire as the executive director of RISE, the county’s nonprofit offering crisis intervention and treatment services to survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence.

Adams — embarking on the next chapter of her life, possibly consulting and writing after she takes a cross-country solo vacation — has seen a lot of change in her field since she started.

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From left are Mariko Kriege, RISE development & marketing manager; Jennifer Adams, RISE executive director; and Len Smolburd, Community Foundation grants manager. Courtesy photo

With the rise of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, RISE’s crisis line calls have increased by 50%, from 979 in 2017 to 1,469 in 2018, Adams said.

“I remember when we’d cut out printed news stories with any mention of sexual assault,” Adams said. “It was that rare to see those in the news.”

Now, more people are calling in, which highlights that incidents long have been under-reported. Over the past two years, RISE has served about 1,000 clients annually.

Currently, about 130 clients are waiting three to four months for in-depth counseling provided through the center (after they receive an initial screening and any immediate response assistance). That’s down from 200 waiting six months following the rise of the #MeToo movement.

Despite progress, Adams believes that systemic cultural issues persist. Victims sometimes aren’t believed — including by friends and family members.

“There can be insinuations it’s their fault, that maybe they shouldn’t have had so much to drink, or they’re asked why they didn’t leave someone who hit them the first time,” Adams said.

When victims feel that way, they can shut down and not want to share their secret, and the impact can be traumatic and life-altering, Adams said. It can affect people’s ability to study or concentrate on work, and lead to mental health problems and addictions, Adams said.

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Jennifer Adams receives her 2018 District 17 Woman of the Year award from State Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning. Courtesy photo

Adams went through years of counseling and learned to live a happy and productive life, she said, not letting her trauma consume her while acknowledging it was a part of her life she couldn’t simply ignore.

Adams previously served as the executive director of the Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention Center (SARP), starting that job in 2004. In 2009, she took over and expanded the North County Women’s Shelter. The two programs merged in 2013, and she took over the helm of the newly formed organization, RISE.

Adams also served two years in the District Attorney’s Victim Witness Assistance Center as a victim advocate for sexual assault and domestic violence victims.

Under Adams’ tenure at RISE, the organization has doubled in size, and she oversees 44 employees, managing three offices and two shelters on a $2 million annual budget.

Adams said that the center’s 24-hour crisis hotline requires 65 hours of training, and sometimes people don’t remember all of the details once that first call comes in.

“I tell them, the most important thing is to show compassion,” Adams said. “If someone’s telling you they were raped, or someone was abusive, be there for them, let them know you’re there for them, and tell them they don’t deserve what happened.”

Adams will be replaced in the interim by associate director Jane Pomeroy, and the nonprofit’s board hopes to make an announcement about new leadership in the next couple of months.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the community through my work at RISE. I am forever grateful to our amazing board of directors, staff and volunteers, as they continue the important work of supporting survivors and ending gender-based violence,” Adams said. “And the courage and resilience of survivors will continue to inspire me, wherever my path leads.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.
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