Stories of Hope: ‘I Wouldn’t Be Here Today’

The following article is part of a series of real stories of how United Way of Southeast Mississippi nonprofit partners have helped local citizens in need. 


Written by Tate Rutland


Sexual violence affects millions of Americans every year. To understand the scope of the problem in the US, every 68 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

In South Mississippi, The Shafer Center for Crisis Intervention offers support for those impacted by sexual violence or homicide as well as survivors of suicide. 

Teressa Ellzey, BSW, a victim’s advocate and educator at The Shafer Center, was a former client at the agency. Now she shares her story to help others navigate and overcome the trauma associated with sexual assault. 

“The Shafer Center turned my world around,” Ellzey said. “I was going down a dead-end street fast. I didn’t know what was causing it, and I didn’t realize how bad the trauma had caused problems personally.” 

“If I hadn’t talked to The Shafer Center, I wouldn’t be here today,” she continued. “The ladies at The Shafer Center are my sisters; they are my best friends. I love everyone at The Shafer Center, and I owe my life to them.”

After 40 years of enduring and reliving her experiences from her childhood, Ellzey said that thanks to the center, she is now able to “sleep without fear of waking up to nightmares” and can now concentrate on projects better than she could in the past.

Ellzey has been with The Shafer Center as a victim’s advocate for almost 10 years. As a victim’s advocate, Ellzey provides moral support for survivors who need someone to accompany them to the police department or to the hospital if they need a rape kit performed. Ellzey and the center also serve as a resource hub for the victims.

“Not only do I advocate for the victims, but I help them with the resources,” Ellzey said. “I help them with the victim’s compensation. I help with the victim’s bill of rights as far as what their rights are in the state of Mississippi. We also have a 24-hour crisis hotline where you can connect with a human being, not a machine, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so there is always someone waiting on your call to help.”

All services and support at The Shafer Center are 100 percent free of charge. Therefore, no insurance, Medicare or Medicaid is needed to benefit from any of the services offered by the center.

The center’s services include the 24-hour crisis line, support groups and individual counseling, professional training and violence prevention programs. The crisis line is accessible in multiple translations, including Spanish. There is also a separate language line that can connect non-English speaking individuals, such as those who use American Sign Language, to the center’s services. Center employees and volunteers also accompany survivors to hospitals, law enforcement agencies and courts. 

Kimberly Newell, the executive director at The Shafer Center, oversees all aspects of the programs and said the support of the United Way of Southeast Mississippi (UWSEMS) provides much of the supporting and matching funds for both the direct services to crime victims and prevention services. She said UWSEMS also provides funding for any services offered to people in the community who have lost someone to suicide.

“United Way gives us that supporting foundation,” Newell said. “Beyond funding, UWSEMS gives us accountability and respect. Without United Way, we would not have near the resources we have in our community. In many ways, United Way is a quiet partner that reaches deep into the fabric of our community, supporting needs and issues that many of us aren’t aware.”

Sexual violence is and will continue to be an ongoing issue, and no community is spared. Agencies, like The Shafer Center, are available for anyone who needs support, regardless of race, color, nationality, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation. Sexual assault can have psychological, emotional and physical effects on the survivor and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. After an act of sexual violence, it is crucial to accept help and support from professionals like those at The Shafer Center. 

“The Shafer Center was godsend,” Ellzey said. “Going to The Shafer Center that first day was the best step I ever made toward my recovery. Here I am now; I have two degrees. I cover all these counties and help others. I am more confident in myself. I am more confident in other people. And I am more confident in what I can achieve than I ever have been before.”

If you have been sexually assaulted, raped or molested or know someone who has been in that position or if your child is going through it, Ellzey said to please not ever blame that person. Believe that person. Call somewhere like The Shafer Center to get help. 

“If you can’t get help at some of the other agencies, call our crisis hotline, and we’ll be more than happy to talk to with you and set you up with the resources you need. If we can’t do the counseling, we will try to refer you to a place that can help you.” 

If you are a victim of sexual assault and need assistance, you can call the center’s 24-hour crisis line at (601) 264-7777 or you can text with a national RAINN counselor at 741741. For more information about The Shafer Center, visit




The Shafer Center for Crisis Intervention is a Health Partner of United Way of Southeast Mississippi, a local nonprofit that strives to create positive change in Forrest, Lamar, Marion and Perry counties. By providing funds to partnering agencies, United Way addresses community issues in the areas of education, economic mobility, health and support services. For more information about United Way and how it helps organizations like The Shafer Center, visit