That night, the voice on the opposite end of the line belonged to Kelly Hilliard. Hilliard had been raped. After moving to Athens and going to great lengths to bury the memories of the incident, Hilliard was finally ready to talk.
For seven years, Sheppard has headed The Cottage, Sexual Assault Advocacy Center and Children’s Advocacy Center, Inc. The little blue house off Lexington Road provides victims of child abuse and sexual violence access to therapy, referrals and support. Sheppard’s experience and strong will made her the perfect person to lead the organization.
The Cottage assisted Hilliard every step of the way on her path to recovery. It provided legal advice when she decided to press charges and paid for her group therapy sessions for the years following her rape.
The day Hilliard faced her perpetrator in court for the first time since she had been raped, she finally found closure as he owned up to what he had done and apologized.
Sheppard, on the other hand, does not feel closure until the assaulter is in cuffs and off the streets.
“I get the most joy putting people in prison,” said Sheppard. “It validates the work I do.”
Sheppard’s bachelor’s degree in sociology from Appalachian State University confirms her long-time interest in domestic violence. She later returned to school to obtain a master’s in social work from the University of Georgia. The moment she started to work as an investigator in the Piedmont District Attorney’s office in Winder, she knew her call was to help victims of assault and abuse.
Cases come to The Cottage in two ways. Adult victims choose to report abuse or assault to The Cottage via its hotline. Or they assist with children cases handled by Athens-Clarke Police Department.
The Cottage workers provide a comfortable environment for the children. The Police Department interviews children by certified employees from The Cottage because they are more likely to open up, according to Lt. Mark Magnuson.
Sheppard sees nearly 250 children and caregivers and 115 adults a year who come through the doors of The Cottage.
“The job can be daunting. You have to distance yourself from the cases and focus on the little things that really matter,” said Shepard. “Still, about five in every 1,000 cases personally affect me.”
But working with cases is only part of the job for Sheppard.
When she became executive director, The Cottage was on the verge of closing due to lack of funding. Sheppard was determined to keep the organization afloat without having to downsize or turn away any cases.
Sheppard commits many long hours to The Cottage. When she is not working with law enforcement, hospitals and court systems, she is meeting with the board of directors and planning events and fundraisers.
On average, The Cottage hosts five awareness fundraisers a month. “Take Back the Night” has become one of the organization’s most popular events. Locals gather and listen to survivors, such as Hilliard, speak on behalf of the organization.
The Cottage will continue to provide a safe haven for abuse and sexual assault victims in part because of the personal drive and accomplishments of Sheppard.
“She saved The Cottage,” said Hilliard.