HOLLY DUNN PENDLETON TURNS PERSONAL TRAUMA INTO ADVOCACY FOR OTHERS
After a violent attack by a notorious murderer, a Junior League of Evansville member makes a remarkable transformation from victim to victor and charts a new course of healing for those who’ve suffered intimate violence.
What happened to you?
In August of 1997 when I was a student at the University of Kentucky, my boyfriend Chris Maier and I were savagely attacked by the Railroad Serial Killer. Chris was killed, and I was beaten, stabbed, and raped and left for dead. In 2006, the killer was found guilty and executed for murdering at least 15 people in at least five states.
How did you recover?
I went back to school about a month after the attack because I needed to feel normal again. I would go to church or to a store and people would walk on egg shells around me. I didn’t like people behaving strangely. School was more normal for me. I had my sorority and fraternities and there were 30,000 people so I didn’t spend my days worrying and feeling bad all the time. I joined a support group with other people whose lives were falling apart and once I dealt with it, my brain did amazing things as did my support group because they knew how to help me heal. Then I met Jacob in November of 1997 and after an eight-year saga we married. Lots of victims don’t have their own support systems so the healing process is difficult.
What was the genesis of Holly’s House?
Several years into my recovery, Brian Turpin, a detective in the sexual violence unit of the Evansville Police Department, approached me with an idea for an advocacy center for children and adults who’d suffered intimate violence. We partnered as founders and in 2008 opened Holly’s House. I joined The Junior League in that same year. It was a big year.
What the mission of Holly’s House?
Holly’s House is a revolutionary institution. It’s a place where government agencies collaborate to respond to, investigate, and prosecute cases of sexual abuse and domestic assault. To date, we’ve provided support to nearly 3,000 adults and children in the Evansville, Indiana area. These survivors grapple not only with physical injuries but with the debilitating emotional pain of shame, fear, guilt and embarrassment, which are the hallmarks of this type of crime.
How does it enhance your community?
We didn’t want to duplicate existing services within the area with a shelter or a therapy practice. Instead we wanted to provide a service not yet offered to residents, which is a safe and comfortable environment in which victims can tell their stories to qualified law-enforcement professionals—detectives, prosecutors, judges—who can fight for justice on their behalf. Too often a survivor falls prey to the stereotype—that the crime is their fault because they wore a short skirt or drank too much. Then they’re afraid to report it or talk about it. I really believe talking about the crime and letting it out forces it to lose its power over you. The listener doesn’t have to say anything as long as they just listen. This is what I was able to do with my support network during my recovery.
Has your work evolved since it opened?
Yes. I have helped author several guides to recovery and am involved with many organizations. I am helping the Evansville community build a support network of healing and outreach. Also, I work as a motivational speaker and trainer for an array of audiences including universities, elementary schools, law enforcement agencies, activist groups, service clubs and domestic violence shelters. I hope to help others reclaim their lives after these traumatic experiences. Now that I have children though, I am not on the road as often!
What do you wish for in the treatment of survivors in the future?
I would love to see an organization like Holly’s House in every community—a support system for every victim. So many victims don’t report the crimes that have been committed against them and they don’t ever talk about it. It’s a horrible thing and it infects us. We can make bad decisions, turn to drugs, choose violence ourselves. It’s a vicious circle. My ultimate goal the intimate violence will stop and there will be no victims.
How did you get involved with The Junior League?
My sister was a member and I knew a lot about it. The League provided a major grant prior to the opening of Holly’s House that helped us build the children’s waiting room. I was amazed by all of the other work they were doing.
What has your experience been like?
I have made friendships and there have been leadership opportunities and more volunteer opportunities that I wouldn’t have known about, including rummage sales and event-planning and fundraisers. These women amaze me all the time and I enjoy being a part of this powerful group.
What aspects of your Junior League training have prepared you for your role with Holly’s House?
I definitely have learned not to need to be in control all of the time. The League has taught me to delegate better in organizations and at work. The most important thing is to realize I can’t do everything. When I feel things creeping up and I feel myself getting overwhelmed, I ask others to pitch in and the work gets done.
Have you experienced survivor’s guilt and if so, how have you managed it?
I started to focus on the good that came from my survival—graduating from college, getting a job, healing—rather than anger and negativity. It helped to be in touch with other victims’ families by talking and emailing. They are proud of me and appreciate that I am doing well. They see me as a beacon that carries on the memory of the family member that was lost, which makes me even prouder. If I make a good choice I will have love in my heart.