Iowans tell stories of abuse through awareness project

Sometimes their faces are obscured — others smile or let their pain show through — all while holding a sign.

“We are not alone. I am a survivor. We are not powerless,” reads one sign.

Others quoted their abusers, or told of a silent, inner pain they’ve lived with since being sexually assaulted.

The Survivor Statement Project is a collection of more than 30 photos currently on display at the RNG Gallery at Dixie Quick’s. Each photo is of a survivor with a sign speaking about their own experiences. The collection is presented as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month through the Catholic Charities Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault program, previously known as the Phoenix House.

The rules for the project were simple: no boundary was set for each survivor’s statement, and they were allowed to write anything they wished.

Sarah Miller, sexual assault advocate, took the photos. This is the second year the project has been displayed, she said, which took the entire team — along with the survivors — to create.

“It’s a collaborative effort. We’re so blessed everyone involved wanted to do this, as sexual violence is so difficult to talk about,” Miller said.

Those pictured are not strangers, but neighbors, she explained. The misconception that sexual assault occurs elsewhere and not within this community is one they are trying to combat.

Each photo also has something symbolic about each survivor’s story in it, like a headstone or a playground, Miller added.

“Each has had a different experience. It was heartbreaking to hear,” she said.

Carrie Potter, sexual assault coordinator, said those who volunteered found the project incredibly emotional when it came time to write down the words on the sign they would hold.

But afterward, they grew proud, she said.

“They wanted to see the photo on display. They wanted to show people what they did,” Potter said.

Stone Printing and Office Supplies of Carroll donated a third of the canvases for the collection. The images are displayed as a group at various locations in the Council Bluffs area — CHI Mercy and Jennie Edmundson hospitals, the Council Bluffs Library and Iowa Western Community College’s student center.

The project can also be viewed in Harrison County at CHI Health Missouri Valley and at the Cass County Courthouse in Atlantic.

Caleb Byers, of Omaha, is the subject of one photo. His sign, about being a survivor and not being powerless alludes to his website,

The 25-year-old gained the attention of the internet in 2014 after he posted a video of detailing his sex abuse when he was 20. Now, Byers does what he can as an advocate for those who have suffered like he has, and volunteered to be part of the project.

He said awareness campaigns like this help dispel myths in society, especially a certain stigma geared towards males who have suffered sexual abuse.

“Words hold a lot of power on a person’s psyche,” he said. “I never realized it until I was assigned a label with a negative connotation. It distorts your thoughts, perceptions and daily interactions.”

After his abuse, a feeling of isolation consumed him, Byers said. Finding out there were others who understand how he felt and that he wasn’t alone was crucial towards his healing.

“I know it sounds cliche, but the night is darkest before dawn. It’s awful, but there’s always hope,” he said.

Brenna Wilhite, 19, of Council Bluffs, was also featured in the project. She said she was initially shocked when asked to participate.

“I thought, ‘I’m just me. What can I do? Why do it?’” she said. But later she realized people were going to see what she did and that she could make an impact.

Writing down what she felt was liberating in its own way, she explained. She finally had her own moment to speak without the filter of someone else handling her words.

“If I could talk to myself from a year ago, after my assault happened, I would have said there are people out there you can count on,” she said. “You’re not alone.”

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