Rising Star: The Youth Advocate – Helping others be safe and happy

Rising Star: The Youth Advocate – Helping others be safe and happy

Sarah Gordon

26

Assistant Director of Prevention Services

Family Crisis Services, Portland

Sarah Gordon’s role as assistant director of prevention services for the Portland-based Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program is not your typical day job.

On some days she gives presentations to students on how to have healthy relationships, and other days she meets one-on-one with young domestic violence victims, or facilitates weekly discussion groups for girls throughout Cumberland County.

As a youth advocate for Family Crisis Services, which oversees the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program, Gordon provides direct service to students, their parents, and school faculty by offering support, resources and information related to dating abuse prevention.

Part of her job is helping 12- to 24-year-olds identify red flags in their relationships and helping them develop a safety plan. And in some cases, Gordon will help students obtain protection from abuse or harassment orders and accompany them to court proceedings.

It wasn’t a personal experience that inspired Gordon to become a youth advocate – it was the statistics. She said 1 in 3 teen relationships nationwide involve some form of abuse, whether it’s emotional, sexual, physical or verbal.

“I don’t do this work because of something I went through,” said Gordon, 26. “I do it because no one should ever have to experience (abuse).”

Gordon’s career path was undetermined when she entered college in 2007. But shortly after she trained to become a resident adviser in the dormitories at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, she started to envision her future.

During the training, educators from Family Crisis Services performed what’s called the “Jake and Caroline” skit, which is done regularly in high schools, colleges and other youth settings in Cumberland County to raise awareness about abusive relationships. Following the presentation, Gordon began to think of her own friends and family who have been affected by domestic violence or other forms of abuse, and how she could help.

“I couldn’t help but wonder why I was first hearing about it in college,” she said.

Gordon immediately felt “empowered to make changes in our world,” and soon started an internship with Family Crisis Services. The more stories she heard from friends and those who called the Young Adult Abuse Prevention hotline, the more passionate she became about abuse prevention, Gordon said.

“I became an educator at Family Crisis Services so that middle school, high school and college students could have these conversations,” she said. “It’s about prevention, and prevention has to start early.”

Gordon began her career with Family Crisis Services as an educator in 2011 after earning bachelor’s degrees in sociology and psychology from Saint Joseph’s College. According to Gordon, Family Crisis Services gives presentations to more than 9,000 students annually.

“I can’t remember how many students would come up to us after a presentation and say that the ‘Jake and Caroline’ skit just portrayed their whole relationship in 30 minutes,” Gordon said. “Because of this, students often needed someone to talk to after the skit. I was moved into the youth advocate position to do just that.”

Gordon, who lives in Gray, created and launched a nationally recognized program for her organization at South Portland High School in 2013 called Coaching Female Athletes, which “aims to educate, offer new views, model healthy and respectful behavior, and promote active bystander intervention,” according to the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program website.

According to Gordon, the program was inspired by the success of the Coaching Boys into Men program at South Portland High School in 2012, which offers male athletes prevention strategies around domestic, dating and sexual violence issues.

“We wanted a similar program to offer coaches and their athletes,” said Gordon. “We hope the success of the program will continue to grow and these conversations will become standard in practice.”

In the next several months she and her colleagues plan to visit more than 30 high schools, middle schools, colleges and other organizations throughout Cumberland County to educate students on topics such as healthy relationships, media literacy and online dating.

She holds weekly discussion groups for girls at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, the Opportunity Alliance’s Young Parent Program at 22 Park Ave, in Portland, South Portland High School and the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

“My goal is to have the girls use each other as supports and give them a safe space to talk about themselves and their relationships,” Gordon said.

In a nutshell, Gordon and the students “work on building self-esteem, talk about the media’s influences on us as women, learn about dating abuse and victim blame, practice becoming an active bystander,” and more.

The girls she mentors at Long Creek have been working on a project called Hope Writing, where they write to the women at Maine Correctional Center in Windham, “to share their stories and experience while creating a positive relationship,” Gordon said.

“My favorite part of my job is to see students taking some of the information we offer and using it to be active bystanders, strong leaders and amazing feminists,” she said.

Gordon, who considers herself an emerging leader, is proud her job enables her to help create other emerging leaders, as well. The message she hopes to send through her work is that “everyone deserves to be happy and healthy in their relationship,” and “if that’s not the case, I would want them to know that it’s not their fault and there are people who are here to listen,” she said.

The overall impact Gordon’s work has on the students is what she finds most rewarding about being an advocate.

“Every day I am taught just how strong these young people I work with are,” she explained. “I’m always amazed at their strength and courage.”

“No one should ever have to experience abuse,” says Sarah Gordon.

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