HELPing victims recover: Project HELP hosting Chocolate Extravaganza to help it help others

Judy Castille, left, hugs Project HELP victim advocate Eileen Wesley as Castille recounts her story of sexual abuse.

Judy Castille, left, hugs Project HELP victim advocate Eileen Wesley as Castille recounts her story of sexual abuse.

Judy Castille said she felt helpless as a nurse held her down and sexually assaulted her.

“I remember the nurse saying to me, ‘If you don’t behave, I’m going to tie down your hands and arms,’” said Castille, now 60. “I was so scared. I felt so small, like a child. She made me feel subservient and I had no power.”

That was December 2009.

More than three years since the sexual attack, Castille continues to rely on Project HELP to cope with the emotional and mental shock.

“It’s a place where the people are so understanding and non-judgmental, said Castille, of East Naples. “The counselors taught me coping skills and made me understand how I was the victim of a sexual attack.”

Castille’s story is one of thousands that counselors and victim advocates at Project HELP have confronted for more than two decades. The nonprofit organization is Collier County’s official crisis response center, relying on private contributions and government grants to stay open. Though Arthrex is one of the agency’s ongoing supporters, individual donations from the community have significantly dwindled.

As Project HELP continues to need financial backing, agency staff is calling on the community for assistance and support of its annual fundraiser dubbed “Chocolate Extravaganza.”

The event will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, at Naples Botanical Garden, 4820 Bayshore Drive. It will feature live and silent auctions, music, appetizers, champagne, wine, and of course, chocolate delights.

This fundraiser accounts for 65 percent of Project HELP’s charitable contributions for the year and 10 percent of the overall annual budget. It’s a pivotal function for the organization, said Mark Koestner, president of Project HELP’s board of directors.

“The sad fact is that if we didn’t do what we do to assist people who are in crisis, nobody else would,” said Koestner, who at one time sought Project HELP’s services after the sudden death of his wife. “By providing these services free of charge to all citizens of Collier County, we are freeing up public resources, such as emergency services, to do what only they can do.”

Project HELP’s work in the community is far-reaching. Counselors and advocates not only assist local residents but also victims across the United States. Via its 24-hour crisis hotline, the organization provides counseling and crisis intervention to thousands of people across the country. Many calls are from despondent or suicidal persons who need someone to listen and talk through their anguish.

“Our advocates provide compassion and guidance and assist the victim in understanding what is happening,” said Eileen Wesley, one of Project HELP’s victim advocates, who has been instrumental is Castille’s road to recovery. “We can be the shoulder for the victim to lean on.”

Executive Director Michelle English cannot fathom what some victims’ lives would be like today if Project HELP had not intervened during their crisis.

“We’re there to tackle and repair the emotional damage,” she said. “Not everyone completes a healing journey but we certainly try to make sure everyone has an opportunity to get help in whatever capacity after they’ve been victimized.”

Aside from the hotline, which is manned by certified counselors and trained volunteers, Project HELP offers counseling to victims of sexual assault and sudden death. The organization also holds support group meetings and prevention education seminars throughout the community — all at no cost.

During 2012, Project HELP answered 2,391 hotline calls, provided services to 1,883 new clients (including children) and spent 1,905 hours of face-to-face time with clients. The organization also provided services to 471 survivors of sexual assault, 282 survivors of sudden death and 1,442 victims of crime.

Project HELP’s board of directors is composed of local professionals such as Chris Roberts, a special investigations division captain with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. He explained how his and Project HELP’s work intertwine.

“I supervise the detectives who investigate sex offenses. Being involved with Project HELP helps to ensure that our investigative practices complement services offered by Project HELP and vice versa,” Roberts said.

Through its work in the community for 25 years and counting, Project HELP has “empowered and supported the once silenced victims and helped many heal and move forward,” said Shaina Hicks, an agency victim advocate and counselor.

For Castille, the psychological wound from her sexual assault remains. The suspect was never arrested or charged because of lack of evidence, Castille said.

“I’m still angry and hurt and scared for other people,” she said. “I’m just glad Project HELP is there for me and others.”

For more information about Project HELP or to volunteer, visit www.projecthelpnaples.org. To contact the 24-hour hotline for any crisis, call (239) 262-7227.

Tickets for the 17th Annual Chocolate Extravaganza are $85 (in advance) per person and may be purchased by calling Project HELP offices at (239) 649-1404.

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