Award-winning program offers help, hope to thousands of domestic violence survivors

Each October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month serves as a reminder of how abuse ravages and traumatizes victims. For students and their mentors at Survivor Link, awareness — and offering solutions to assist domestic violence survivors — is a year-round commitment that has helped thousands to cope and move forward.

Since its founding in 2015, Survivor Link, an AmeriCorps program based at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work, has provided multifaceted support to more than 3,000 domestic violence survivors and has trained 445 student members as domestic violence advocates in collaboration with the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, said School of Social Work Professor Jill Messing.

In 2020, ASU President Michael Crow honored Survivor Link with the President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness.

Survivor Link members have logged more than 190,000 hours of service over the past six years by engaging daily in interventions to help survivors understand their risks and make plans for safety, Messing said.

On National Days of Service, Survivor Link members have come together to work on community projects. They delivered dozens of care packages to Tucson, Arizona, residents in cooperation with the School of Social Work-based Office of Community Health Engagement and Resiliency and are also volunteering at local COVID-19 vaccination sites, said Research Assistant Professor Megan Lindsay Brown. Brown and Messing lead a team of faculty and staff who train and guide Survivor Link members.

To mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, students built a community garden; on the same holiday in 2020 they held a drive to collect children’s books for kids staying at domestic violence shelters. They worked with residents in Maryvale to paint a mural to express community pride.

Graduate learned that domestic violence can strike anyone

Jade Sun worked for two years at Survivor Link, one as an intern and the second as a field specialist within the school. She earned her master's degree in social work with a concentration on policy, administration and community practice from the School of Social Work in May 2019.

Sun, today a school social worker at Wilson College Preparatory in the Phoenix Union High School District, said she remembers her internship year trying to decide what aspect of social work to pursue. She spoke with Brown about a housing project Survivor Link was working on with the city of Phoenix’s Housing Department. The city presented vouchers to domestic violence survivors to help them afford places to live.

Sun performed intake assessments to help connect survivors to housing and additional services once they left shelters.

“I have a background working with families who are homeless. A lot of the women we served had domestic violence in their past or were trying to flee in the present,” she said. “The chance to do an internship on this issue in the community seemed really appealing to me.”

Sun said she learned something unexpected from the experience, that “domestic violence can affect people at any age. We had clients as young as 20 and as old as 70. That was the most surprising thing.”

Members serve at multiple sites, create hundreds of safety plans

Throughout Survivor Link’s history, its members have gone on to improve services in the community, Messing said. During their time in AmeriCorps, members have:

  • Provided services in more than 50 partner sites statewide, from Flagstaff to Yuma.
  • Implemented more than 1,000 risk-informed evidence-based safety plans with survivors of domestic violence.
  • Earned $1.2 million in scholarships.
  • Earned approximately $700,000 in tuition funding (Segal Education Awards).
  • Completed their service with a retention rate of 94%.

Messing said the work has been particularly important since COVID-19-related lockdowns began in March 2020. A report from the Arizona Coalition to End Domestic Violence found increased needs for services for those experiencing domestic violence during that time, Messing said.

“We’re seeing more people who are isolated at home with abusers and decreased opportunities for women to access services,” Messing said. “Our students and interventions have kept pace with survivor needs.”

Messing said service providers are also feeling the stress of trying to provide the same services to more people under recently more adverse conditions.

“Having students there with knowledge about domestic violence is really important within our social service system as well,” Messing said. “It’s particularly important during the pandemic, too.”

Still, even once the pandemic ends, domestic violence survivors’ problems won’t go away, she said.

“Hopefully we can integrate what we’ve learned during the pandemic,” Messing said. “Part of that learning resulted in Survivor Link developing a hybrid model of providing both in-person and online services.”

Messing said beyond learning skills to become better-equipped social work professionals, a benefit to AmeriCorps students working for Survivor Link is the opportunity to receive scholarships. Members have received $1.2 million in scholarship funds since Survivor Link’s inception.

“So much of learning in the social work program is service-based and unpaid,” Messing said. “But the integration of AmeriCorps with the School of Social Work has been a really great partnership that enables them to contribute to the community through all of their service hours. They are learning at the same time that they are doing important interventions for survivors – and students are earning scholarship money.”

Sun said her Survivor Link experience taught her something she employs in her job today, to “meet people where they’re at and be a compassionate listener. When I interned with Survivor Link I was in a listener’s seat and had to hear about different experiences people had gone through,” she said.

“I realized how powerful it could be just to listen to someone tell their story. One of the best things I could do is listen and figure out what someone needs in that moment.”

Mark J. Scarp
mscarp@asu.edu