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Columbia Business Monthly

Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands: Lending a Helping Paw

Jul 03, 2017 10:22AM ● Published by Emily Stevenson

By Chris Nelson

Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands (STSM) is an invaluable resource for survivors of sexual violence in Richland, Lexington, Newberry, Clarendon, and Sumter counties. There are more than three-quarters of a million residents of these counties in the Midlands. One in 6 women and one in 33 men experience sexual violence, which leaves STSM with an incredible responsibility of providing resources, support, counseling and education for survivors and their families. 

Sexual violence does not discriminate, meaning that no matter your age, race, gender, or class, we all know somebody who has been affected. Thanks to the generous support of the local community, STSM provides round the clock trauma-focused services at no cost to survivors. 

Over the years, STSM has depended on a special staff member to help survivors deal with the crippling anxiety, stress, and fear that often come on as a result of sexual assault. Meet Maximus, a big fluffy Great Pyrenees. His owner, Angie Eanes, explains that from an early age, Max’s mission has been to provide comfort to people in need of a furry friend. Max embodies all of the characteristics you could ever ask for in a therapy dog. He’s compassionate and understanding while also being exceptionally calm and focused. Physically, he’s like a teddy bear—big, fluffy and soft, and he enjoys every single hug. 

Survivors of sexual violence often develop PTSD as a result of their assault. In fact, studies have shown that as many as one in 3 survivors will develop PTSD. This rate may even be higher than the number of veterans who suffer from the same condition. Employing therapy dogs for sexual assault victims is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Anecdotal evidence has shown that they may be ideally suited for treating these individuals. Therapy dogs can help lay the groundwork for survivors to overcome their issues with trust and relationships, and they provide an excellent source of comfort and emotional support. 

At STSM, Max sits in on client therapy sessions and shows a unique understanding for when people need him the most. Eanes explains that when a client is particularly anxious or upset, Max is immediately alert and often leans into them to show that he is there. Sometimes he offers his paw in a loving gesture to get their attention. 

One particularly memorable instance occurred when a female client sat in her car trying to rally the courage to walk into the STSM building. Eanes and Max happened to be walking by at that moment. Seeing Max gave the woman the strength to hop out of the car and rush into the office. She later explained that seeing Max gave her the push she needed to walk through the door that day.

Another memorable experience occurred with a client whom Max had met during her initial crisis counseling. Eanes explains that this individual had completely shut down and was barely speaking. However, she spent the session running her fingers through Max’s fur. As she started therapy, she asked if Max could attend all of her sessions. At first, Max was very actively engaged, leaning against her and insisting on being petted throughout. Eventually, as she was able to start relaxing Max would just sleep at her feet. He became a calming presence in the room. After six months of therapy, the client had a tremendous transformation, and she credits her progress in part to Max.

Throughout his time at STSM, Max has become something of a celebrity around Columbia. His presence has been well documented, with adoring fans frequently asking for pictures with him. He has served as a mascot at STSM events like Walk a Mile in Their Shoes, anniversary galas and fundraising events. In fact, at one fundraising event, individuals donated money for the chance to have cocktails with Max. 
Max has also provided his services as a therapy dog at Brookdale, a senior living facility and to Burton Center, a center for adults with special needs. However, these days Max is semi-retired from his career as a service dog. As he gets older, he doesn’t have quite the stamina he used to.  He has passed the torch to other therapy dogs and their owners - to lend a paw of support to help heal STSM clients. 

Although Max and dogs like him provide precious support to survivors at STSM, they are but one part of the dedicated staff and volunteers who help Columbia area residents heal from sexual violence. With everybody’s help, STSM moves towards their ultimate goal: healthy survivors, thriving in a community free of sexual violence.

STSM is on the lookout for new therapy dogs! For more information: www.stsm.org/get-involved/therapy-dog-teams

Every dollar helps! Please consider making a donation to STSM: 

Chris Nelson is a public relations consultant. He works with DNA Creative Communications; an inspirational public relations firm for nonprofits and producer of Shine the Light Nonprofit Forums   Chris enjoys sharing nonprofit stories as a contributor to several publications. He is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English. For more information about DNA and Shine the Light, visit www.dnacc.com and www.nonprofitforums.org.

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