Assault victim Stephanie Fessler, 24, of West York talks about overcoming the trauma of her attack during the Sexual Assault Awareness Month kickoff event
Assault victim Stephanie Fessler, 24, of West York talks about overcoming the trauma of her attack during the Sexual Assault Awareness Month kickoff event sponsored by the YWCA of York. (Bill Kalina photo)

She looks pretty tough now, sporting big hoop earrings and a spiked, two-toned faux hawk.

But 20 years ago, Stephanie Fessler was a vulnerable 4-year-old girl told she was to blame for being sexually assaulted by a male congregation member at Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses.

She was 14 the second time it happened. This time, it came at the hands of a 50-year-old woman from the church. Fessler said she was given the same punishment as her abuser.

"I was publicly reproved (disgraced) at a church meeting," Fessler said Thursday after speaking about the abuse in public for the first time. "Because she was a woman, I should've known better. It was against the church ..."

The 24-year-old West York woman was one of a few sexual assault survivors to share their stories Thursday for the kickoff ceremony for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The outdoor event on the steps of the York County Administrative Center on East Market Street was held to highlight an awareness campaign and several related activities during the month of April.

Demand for services: York County has seen an increased demand in sexual-assault-related services over the past couple years because of high-profile exposure of sexual scandals at Penn State University, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said Rick Azzaro, chief services officer for Victim Services Access-York/Victims Assistance Center.

The county serves about 1,000 victims per year through York County Victim Assistance, he said.

In 2011, the most recent

data available, there were 523 sex-related offenses, with rape accounting for 27 percent of those crimes, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

"... We have a waiting list over 100 people long for our counseling services," said Nicole Shaffer, communication coordinator for the YWCA York. "It is very hard to make these people wait, but unfortunately, we just don't have enough staff to fulfill the need."

Talk early and often: Lexi Huston Livelsberger, a children's advocacy coordinator, said parents should "talk early, talk often" about sexual abuse.

Parents can help their children by establishing boundaries and telling a child he or she is in control of his or her own body from an early age, she said.

The practice, for example, of making a child hug grandparents or other relatives reinforces the idea that children are not in control of their bodies and they need to please adults by being physically demonstrative, she said.

Awareness campaign: To raise awareness, victim advocates and social workers are launching a campaign to "Teal the Town," encouraging residents to display or wear the teal-colored ribbons, buttons and shirts, and flyers are being distributed at various locations. Businesses are asked to decorate their storefronts in teal.

People are encouraged to post photos with the hashtag "tealthetown" on social networks such as Instagram and Facebook. The YWCA is asking people to friend its Facebook page to see its daily "Start the Conversation" suggestions for discussing sexual assault.

Teal Ribbon Campaign ribbons will be available at Rutter's Farm Stores during April, and organizers will have a table downtown on North Beaver Street, 5-9 p.m. during First Friday, April 5.

For a complete list of events, visit www.ywcayork.org and, under Events, click on Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

-- Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.