When Cheryl Zwahlen came to Seekhaven’s shelter in 1993 to escape her abusive marriage, the organization was much smaller in resources, staff and scope. “The group therapy and individual counseling I was given helped me get away from my abusive husband back then,” said Zwahlen. “But Seekhaven has grown a lot since then, and the people we’ve brought in and the way we’ve set things up now is just amazing.”
Zwahlen, who lives in Green River with her husband, has served as Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center’s shelter manager for the last five years supporting women and children in various acute situations.
“My favorite thing is helping people — making a difference in someone’s life and being able to share my past,” she said.
Seekhaven is celebrating 30 years of combating sexual assault and domestic violence in the Moab area in 2021, a task that can feel insurmountable. One in six Utah women and one in 25 men experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime, state studies have found. Nearly one in three women will experience sexual violence of some kind during their lives, and the Utah Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 2016 found that 87.8% of rape victims knew their perpetrators.
Utah ranks low nationally for violent crime rates such as homicide, robbery and aggravated assault, but rape is higher than the national average in the state. In 2016, the reported rape rate in Utah was 56.8 per 100,000 adults, compared to the national average of 42.6 per 100,000 adults.
Like anything else, Seekhaven staff chip away at these large issues day by day. After checking up on emails and reports each morning, they gather for a staff meeting every day at 9 a.m.
“Anytime a client needs something, we have that time in the morning to bounce ideas off of each other and then provide our clients the best information possible,” said Morgan Flynn, Seekhaven’s sexual assault victim advocate. She works with sexual assault survivors throughout their journey with the nonprofit, from the sexual assault nurse examination to the investigation process, if the survivor chooses to press charges. Flynn also assists survivors with counseling and finding housing.
“It’s nice when you can see tangible results of providing full services to people and have them come back and say that they feel safe, heard and validated,” Flynn said. “Getting that response on a person-to-person basis is really rewarding.”
While some days are full of meeting with survivors, giving them rides or attending court hearings, slower days allow Flynn to work on longer-term projects. She and her colleagues are currently researching human and sex trafficking in rural communities to provide resources for community partners to spot and prevent such crimes. Later this quarter, Flynn and other Seekhaven staff will become certified community healthcare workers after completing a program through Utah State University.
Flynn works closely with Karissa Thomas, a longtime Moab resident who worked weekend and overnight shifts at the shelter before becoming Seekhaven’s victim advocate in December. “It’s intense, but it’s so darn rewarding,” said Thomas. “I actually have the ability to hold space and hear people share their stories, and I can connect them with resources, help them make plans and give them support.”
The advocates work with a variety of clients. Some, Thomas said, have suffered abuse in the past and are now seeking out counseling, financial help or encouragement. Vanessa Bylilly, financial director at Seekhaven, said that increasing clients’ financial literacy helps them gain independence.
“If you’re in trauma, your trauma brain doesn’t know what your first step should be,” Bylilly explained. “We want to help them get that step up and recognize what their priorities and career choices are so they can start accomplishing those.”
Other clients have been living in abusive situations for some time, but have come to Seekhaven ready to make a change.
“We’re very client-driven. That can sometimes feel a little frustrating when you see clients making what we might perceive as not the healthiest choices, but it’s their life,” said Thomas. “My role here is to help people navigate their choices and understand their options for support.”
Many clients come into Seekhaven without much knowledge about the services available to them, which Flynn and Thomas connect them with. Their days are often unpredictable, starting out with open schedules that are then filled with either meetings or client support.
“The nature of crises is that they’re often not planned,” Thomas joked.
Seekhaven staff members have embraced the ever changing nature of their work, prioritizing flexibility and picking up slack for team members who might be otherwise engaged with client work.
“Everyone here is pretty good about pitching in where they’re needed,” said Zwahlen.
The scope of Seekhaven’s work has expanded over the last three decades, from primarily serving the homeless to providing support for people of all genders who have suffered abuse.
“There’s a huge stigma surrounding males who reach out for help because many people think it’s not supposed to happen to men,” said Thomas. “Recently, we’ve had more male clients reach out and seek support, which is really encouraging.”
Bylilly emphasized Seekhaven’s confidentiality, accessibility and range of services, which are tailored to each client’s specific situation.
“If you have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence in your lifetime, no other disclosure is needed,” she said. “Anyone can come to us for support, whether its’ something that happened a week ago, months ago or years ago.”
On her 45-minute commute back to her home in Green River each night, Zwahlen decompresses from her often heavy days.
“It’s a high burn-out job, but it’s not a repetitive job. It’s never the same,” she said. “Sometimes just being able to talk to somebody here is the most important thing we can do.”