Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center offers early look at upcoming Skokie location

Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center, often referred to as ZCenter, is a social service organization that has been helping sexual abuse survivors and their families for more than 30 years in Gurnee. Soon, it will be opening a second location in Skokie.

An unfinished room filled with supporters of ZCenter, representatives of other social service agencies and elected local leaders listened Monday at an early open house in Skokie. Although there is no furniture yet and rooms are still being finished, leaders say the facility will be ready to go at 4232 Dempster St. in early 2016.

“We’re in the business of healing,” said Amy Junge, the organization’s CEO.

Monday’s gathering was a sneak preview of sorts, an opportunity for guests to hear about services to be offered in Skokie and to tour the spaces that make up about 5,100 square feet — half the size of the Gurnee center.

Among those in attendance were Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen as well as State Reps. Laura Fine (D-17), Robyn Gabel (D-18) and Lou Lang (D-16).

According to ZCenter, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused and assaulted before they turn 18.

“There is healing after sexual violence, and ZCenter is here to support survivors on their individual healing journeys in a beautiful, holistic space,” Junge said.

Whether sexual abuse is on the rise or whether victims simply feel more comfortable reporting abuse, no one knows for sure, ZCenter leaders say.

But what they do say they know through their work is that there has been an increasing number of sexual abuse victims seeking help in recent years. The Skokie location is necessary, they say, noting that there are regular waiting lines for the Gurnee facility’s free services.

According to ZCenter, it served more than 40,000 people last year in different ways at its flagship Gurnee location.

“Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center seeks to provide quality, comprehensive, client-centered services to survivors of sexual assault and abuse,” its published mission states. “These services are provided in partnership with the survivor in the spirit of equality, free from judgment or oppression.”

The organization traces its history back to 1981 when the Advisory Board and Coordinating Council of Lake County Health Department formed the Rape Victim Advocacy Task Force.

Lake County’s first rape crisis center began in 1983 as a nonprofit organization — the Lake County Council Against Sexual Assault. That organization would eventually become the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center.

Director of Stewardship & Engagement Stephanie Garrity said ZCenter seeks to raise awareness and to reduce stigmatization around sexual abuse.

“We want people to be driving down the road and say, ‘sexual abuse center? What’s that?'” she said. “People drive by the library and they know what goes on there. It’s about awareness, but also taking away some of the shame and quietness that surrounds this issue.”

Executive director of the ZCenter Skokie site, Adam Robinson, provided a “virtual tour” of the new facility and its future amenities so the first visitors could sense how the center will be laid out.

The room in which visitors looked at a displayed floor plan Monday will become an art therapy space for clients, he said. Robinson showcased a self-portrait drawn by girl who was a victim of abuse, her head bowed and her face hidden. A later self-portrait by the same girl gave off an entirely different feeling with her face fully exposed.

Very often, he said, victims can express themselves artistically better than they can verbally. Abuse sometimes takes place before children have language skills.

ZCenter’s new home used to be occupied by Shore Community Services Inc., a social service agency. It has undertaken a significant interior renovation.

“Environment isn’t just something we show up and do this important work in,” Robinson said. “Environment is as important as the work.”

Many of the sexual abuse victims that ZCenter helps, Robinson said, were abused in an environment where they expected and deserved to feel safe and were not.

“Part of the intention is that we create space that we can fill with relationship and healing,” he said.

The facility includes play rooms and space for therapy, art and training as well as administrative offices. The Skokie team will include four staff members, as well as interns and volunteers, and leaders say there are plans to increase staff down the line.

ZCenter helps not only victims of sexual abuse, but survivors’ families, too. Jon Mills, a long-time supporter of ZCenter who was in the audience, told about discovering that a grandfather he knew abused his two granddaughters.

“It destroyed the entire family’s life,” he said. “(This) I never expected. I’m so grateful to all of you for being here because you’re helping to keep my grandkids safe, too.”

ZCenter would not have been able to be here, Junge said, without significant help from the North Suburban Healthcare Foundation.

The Foundation isn’t expected to be around much longer, said Jeff Greenspan, a member of the Foundation Board, and decided to allocate money to six different organizations. ZCenter was one of them.

According to Greenspan, the Foundation provided $1 million for purchase of the building and then more recently another $300,000 to help with operations.

The North Suburban Healthcare Foundation has also provided funding for other key area social service agencies including Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center, the Chicago Lighthouse and Eerie Family Health Center in Evanston.

“The whole idea is to choose programs that we can help fund and that people need and can use,” he said. “A day like this makes me feel great.”

Twitter: @SKReview_Mike