YWCA honoree's stick-to-itiveness kept RACES alive

 

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URBANA — In May of last year, the rape-crisis center in Urbana suspended nearly all of its services and laid off all but one employee as a result of the state budget impasse.

Now, nearly a year later, the state still has no budget, but the crisis center has new life.

And Kristin Hansen, a crisis center part-time educator-turned-volunteer, greatly credits one person — Jaya Kolisetty — with breathing life back into an organization that was on the brink of closure after almost 50 years of serving the community.

Rape Advocacy, Counseling and Education Services (RACES) would not be open without Kolisetty, Hansen said.

"If she hadn't stuck it out, it wouldn't be there," said Hansen, who nominated Kolisetty for the leadership award for advocacy from the YWCA of the University of Illinois, which she'll receive during tonight's 31st annual Women's Achievement Celebration. "Jaya had the tenacity to stick to it all."

For the past six months, Kolisetty has been a one-person show, keeping the doors open at the organization that, under normal circumstances, provides a 24-hour crisis line, counseling, medical advocacy and legal advocacy to victims and survivors of sexual assault, abuse and harassment in Champaign, Douglas, Ford and Piatt counties, as well as prevention education and training.

Prior to the state budget crisis, RACES had eight full-time employees, plus part-timers like Hansen. But by May of last year, it had gone nearly a year without money from the state — a hit of about $200,000 — and its board made the difficult decision to suspend services, laying off the remaining employees but preserving the 24-hour crisis line, using a $25,000 emergency grant from the United Way to pay for a part-time volunteer coordinator to keep that going.

Kolisetty did just that by continuing to maintain the organization's volunteer ranks, which average about 60 people. And with the help of community donations and fund-raisers, grants and frugal money management, she has RACES poised to grow again, restoring staff and services without the state's help.

"I've worn a lot of hats, and I'm really excited to hand those over to other people," said Kolisetty, who explained that the agency hired a new executive director in January. "The progress we've made since she started has been fantastic."

She said they're also currently in the process of hiring a legal advocate and will restore counseling services in mid-May.

The local support, Kolisetty said, has been "huge" for RACES, but the organization also been conservative with its federal funding. And as staff and services are restored, she said, RACES is ensuring it has reliable funding in place.

"I think we are headed in the right direction now, and we are on a much more stable footing," said Kolisetty, a Chicago-area native and UI graduate, who earned a master's degree in public policy with a concentration in women's studies from George Washington University.

Kolisetty first got involved in this work as an undergraduate, becoming a facilitator with First Year Campus Acquaintance Rape Education, a mandatory workshop for UI freshmen that educates them about the issue of campus sexual assault.

The more she got involved, the more she discovered the seriousness of the issue.

"I realized how this affected so many people," said Kolisetty, who continued her work in the area during grad school.

Then, after returning to the C-U area, she became a RACES volunteer and eventually a staff member focused on prevention education. She traveled to schools, working with children of all ages in multiple counties, as well as training part-time educators and volunteers.

"The empathy and care and passion she has for teaching kids of all ages is astounding to me," Hansen said.

For Kolisetty, the more of this issue she saw in the lives of others, the more difficult it became to not get more involved.

"It has been something that's been very meaningful and important to me, and I see the impact in the lives of so many people I know and care about," she said.

"She is a very strong woman, and someone who I look up to personally," Hansen said. "She is resilient."

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