The Cottage Sexual Assault & Children's Advocacy Center sees roughly 300 cases of abuse per year, with clients as young as 3-years-old to adult survivors. The primary services they offer are crisis counseling, therapy, support and trauma assessment, all free of cost to the victims and their families. But there was a time when this organization almost had to close its doors.
Following some financial troubles in 2007, The Cottage has undergone some major changes that contributed towards its success today. Much of this achievement goes back to the efforts of Executive Director Sally Sheppard, who had a big hand in turning the non-profit around in order to continue serving the children and adults in Athens.
“My main responsibilities are making sure that we continue to get the type of funding we need to be able to pay my staff, make sure they are adequately trained, and therefore be able to serve our clients as best we can,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard graduated from Appalachian State University, and then went to graduate school at the University of Georgia, specializing in social work. During these years, she interned for the Athens District Attorney’s office, where she realized her passions lied with being a part of the trials for victims of child abuse.
“I helped get the children and families ready for court and make sure they had access to therapy,” Sheppard said. “But I was really inspired by the expert witnesses, because they get to be the one to act for the child and professionally tell their story.”
After finishing graduate school and interning for both the Department of Family and Child Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice, Sheppard found her calling with non-profit work, but it wouldn’t be until 2007 that she began her work with revamping The Cottage.
“I am blown away at how much she has done for The Cottage, since she came on board in 2007,” said Mary Dulong, intern at The Cottage. “From what I’ve been told, the first thing on her itinerary was to get the lights turned on, and from there the organization just started to flourish. Currently, her efforts have pushed The Cottage to what it is today; being considered one of the leading Sexual Assault and Child Advocacy Centers in Georgia.”
Today, in addition to fundraising and budgeting, Sheppard serves as the front woman for spreading the word about their cause. According to Dulong, she handles a majority of the speaking events about the work being done to aid victims of assault.
“She has this incredibly ability to speak to people about The Cottage, its mission, and the impact sexual assault, physical abuse, and domestic violence has on children and families,” Dulong said.
In addition to speaking publically about their mission, Sheppard spends a good bit of time maintaining close relationships with the community she serves.
“Sally really nurtures her relationships with the community, board members, UGA, interns, staff, etc.,” said intern Jennifer Lee. “I think overall, her relationships with those community members as well as with the staff and board members, has an incredibly positive impact on how well The Cottage runs.”
This type of work isn’t for the weak of heart, however. The emotional component to dealing with children and adults who have seen the unthinkable can be taxing on even the most experienced counselor or interviewer.
“It’ll make you crazy listening to kids talk about being sexually abused so much,” Sheppard said. “I think to be able to do that job you have to have a tough skin. You love children and you don’t want them to be hurt, but also [you want] to help someone be accountable or help [the victims] get to a place where they can get help.”
According to Sheppard, a huge part of being able to advocate for these types of victims is continuously checking on and taking care of yourself.
“You have to be aware of when things are really bothering you,” Sheppard said. “Good self care is so important.”
This mantra has been passed down to others at The Cottage, who look to Sheppard as an example of how to balance the stresses of an emotionally demanding line of work.
“She has helped me see that you need to make time for self-care regardless of how many things you have going on in your day,” Dulong said. “She helps remind me that in order to best serve our clients; we need to be able to take care of ourselves as well.”
Sheppard is an integral part of The Cottage, both in administrative roles and in setting a good example for her coworkers to lead peaceful lives amongst the stress in their line of work. The past few years have been challenging for The Cottage, but thanks to Sheppard it has many years to come to support and defend victims of abuse.
“Sally is a huge inspiration to me,” said Lee. “I was incredibly thrilled to have the opportunity to work alongside her at The Cottage and have enjoyed my experience thus far.”