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From Victim to Advocate

Jeanelle Achee, the recipient of a 2013 Truman Scholarship for public service, is a native of Rochester, Vt., a graduate of Sharon Academy, and a nursing student at the University of Vermont. (Valley News - Libby March)

Jeanelle Achee, the recipient of a 2013 Truman Scholarship for public service, is a native of Rochester, Vt., a graduate of Sharon Academy, and a nursing student at the University of Vermont. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

Calls ring to Jeanelle Achee’s iPhone at all hours. But the Rochester, Vt., native, University of Vermont nursing student and recipient of a prestigious public service scholarship prefers hearing the phone ring to the alternative.

Silence, as Achee knows as a sexual assault survivor, is what allows abuse and assault to continue. So as an advocate for domestic and sexual violence survivors at Hope Works in Burlington, Achee takes the calls that pour into a hotline from women, men and transgender people in Chittenden County, and listens without bias.

“Some people don’t feel comfortable giving you any details. Some people want to give you all the details. Some people want you to label if they’ve been sexually assaulted, and that’s not my job,” Achee said this week in an interview. Her job, she said, “is to really help them navigate and take control of their lives and empower them.”

Beginning in her high school years at The Sharon Academy, Achee (pronounced Ah-shay) has committed herself to offering emotional support to victims at Hope Works and at Safeline in Chelsea, where she first became certified as a crisis worker. “It’s not a job,” she said. “It’s just something that I do, like brushing my teeth.”

It’s also a passion that led to her being named one of 62 Harry S. Truman Scholars from across the U.S. this year. Named for the 33rd president, the scholarship awards $30,000 for graduate study to college juniors who have demonstrated a strong commitment to community service.

“Jeanelle stood out because she has this relentless drive to make a difference. That’s just really apparent when you look at her course load, her tireless service in the community, her incredible amount of engagement at the local and state level, and the fact that she works almost full time,” said Britten Chase, the director of fellowships advising at UVM. “After a brief discussion with her, it was just clear that this young woman is going places, and this scholarship may better enable her to get where she’s going.”

While some high school and college students use community service and political activism to pad their resumes, Achee, an assertive and easygoing 22-year-old with long hair and striking features, has found her calling in advocacy and serving others.

Raised by a single mother in an “off-the-grid” house in Rochester, Achee was exposed to volunteering at a young age. In high school at The Sharon Academy, from which she graduated in 2009, Achee helped found the Vermont Student Summit for Building Peace in Iraq and volunteered for the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Barack Obama. She also became a certified crisis worker while at Safeline, and graduated from TSA having logged 300 hours of community service, nearly two times what the school requires for graduates.

“She’s really connected the dots in her lifetime with recognizing both her own potential as well as really finding meaning in reaching out to the community,” said Michael Livingston, head of school at TSA. “Once you pull those two things together, it really started to come together for her.”

On the UVM campus, Achee is known for working to prevent sexual violence and serving the wider community. As a sophomore living in the Dewey House for Civic Engagement, she worked with other residents and the Girl Scouts to organize a leadership weekend for middle school girls with a parent in prison. The program was designed to help the girls develop long-term goals for their education and careers.

“I think the reason that she’s so successful is that she just believes anything is possible, and not in a naive way,” said JB Barna, a UVM social work professor and former Dewey House advisor. “She’s such a motivated, passionate woman that no project is too small. While she has so much humility herself, she believes in the power of collaboration. Everyone has gifts, and if they bring them all together, something good will happen.”

Achee’s level of community involvement has been recognized with several scholarships, including UVM’s Community Service Scholars Program and another associated with the Miss Vermont pageant, allowing her to finance her college education with less than $1,000 in loans.

Achee’s work at Safeline was a key part of her healing process after she was sexually assaulted by an older teenager in town the summer before eighth grade. After the incident, she kept quiet, not even telling her mother what happened. “I never pressed charges, because at least for the first two years, I didn’t really have a name for it, and didn’t really understand, but just knew that there was something wrong,” she said.

Once she disclosed the assault, Achee said her mother, Cyndi Ryan, “got me into counseling and really supported me.” She also sought refuge in the theater art program at Safeart, a Chelsea nonprofit that uses the arts to address issues of sexual and domestic violence. Volunteering at Safeline taught her the characteristics of assault and relationship violence, and the confidence to share her story.

“People feel a lot of pity for people who’ve been assaulted, and I don’t ever want people’s pity,” she said. “I want to educate them. I want them to ask me questions. I want them to ask me things that maybe they’ll think I’m uncomfortable with, because if they know more information, then if they run into a scenario where someone they love or (they) gets sexually assaulted, they’ll know more and they’ll feel comfortable reaching for resources.”

As Achee’s mother, Ryan has watched her daughter’s metamorphosis from traumatized victim to confident young woman. “I think she’s learned that you can take any experience and it’s how you react to it, how you choose to react to it, that can make it into a horrific experience or something you can take and learn and grow from,” Ryan said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but it has made her into the person that she is.”

For as much as Achee is committed to working with survivors of violence, she would like to see fewer calls pour into the Hope Works hotline. To curb the incidence of abuse, Achee said it’s key to expose students to abuse prevention education before they enter high school. As part of her Truman Scholar application, she developed a policy proposal, a plan to implement rape education programs in high schools, with an emphasis on reaching out to young men. “The period before they get to high school is really the prime area where you teach the difference between consent and the gray area with alcohol and drugs,” she said.

The next step for Achee is to travel to Missouri for an orientation with other Truman Scholars that will include community service trips, the creation of a policy proposal, and advice on pursuing public service and graduate study.

Set to graduate in 2014 with her nursing degree, Achee plans to pursue a doctorate in nursing and work in acute care, though she’s also considering a career in the elite U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, and would hope to combat the occurence of sexual assault in the military. “You can’t really change things from the outside,” she said, “and there’s a long history of service in both sides of my family. I feel like there’s no better way to really apply yourself and help your country than being in the armed forces.”

The line of volunteer work that Achee has chosen and the career she’s pursuing are not for the faint of heart. But with each crisis call she has taken, and each victim she has met, Achee has grown more firm in her commitment to stopping the cycle of violence.

“People have so much potential,” she said. “It’s amazing to guide them and feel like, bigger picture, you’re making your community more successful.”

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.