READY, INSPIRE, ACT (RIA) HOUSE
Heather Wightman, Founder and Executive Director
Supporting and standing with women who have experience in the commercial sex trade, including exploitation, trafficking, and prostitution.
Heather has witnessed time and again the powerful work of the RIA House team. Weekly, she visits the local women’s prison and provides one-on-one support with any woman who wants this type of connection. In her role as a volunteer, she spends between 20-40 minutes with each woman. Heather has found that over time this small amount of connection can really matter. In fact, what always surprises her is that if she misses a week because of a grant or report deadline that creeps up on her, a woman will say, “where were you last week? I had something I wanted to tell you,” or “I needed to think through something,” and they will start the conversation afresh.
These moments are shared human exchanges that promise a listening ear, a non-judgmental partner if you will, as a woman may share her struggles, hopes, and dreams. What Heather promises with each woman is that although they may not share all of the same experiences, she will always try to understand her. It is through delicate and meaningful connection that Heather believes we each become better people, better listeners, better women in this world. Her vision is of a world where people are loved and supported, not bought or sold for the power gain and sexual gratification of another.
Our model, Sisters Leading Sisters, is one of accompaniment on a journey towards wholeness and healing. Accompaniment is a trauma-informed approach to care that requires understanding how power over another human being affects a person's sense of safety and control over their own life. Specifically, our model of accompaniment uses a survivor-engaged, clinical team approach, with small caseloads and the capacity to provide mobile support across all levels of care. In addition, members of our team have extensive complex trauma training and receive ongoing clinical supervision. We use an action-oriented, relational approach and bring compassionate community to the women we meet. We incorporate clinical and healing practices in every step of support with women both in the community and in prison. These practices include: Peer Mentorship, One-on-one Therapy, Back to Self Groups, Intensive Case Management, and Advocacy.
We recognize that when women do not find the emotional/relational support they need from shelters, addiction programs, clinicians, hospitals, they commonly return to the situations that make them most vulnerable to abuse and trauma. RIA House focuses on opening exit ramps for adult women survivors in the community and in prison. We invite women in by offering peer outreach and trauma-informed relationship building, supported by clinical care, intensive case management and groups. We have found that there is no one-size-fits-all method to our services, and in fact, our approach addresses complex trauma by focusing on therapeutic conversations. Therapeutic conversations enable flexible, thoughtful, and open support in any setting to respond to the unique needs of each women. Specifically, our team is working with survivors and psychologists to better understand traumatic attachment - a term often used to describe a trafficked person’s pattern of leaving and returning to a trafficker multiple times before full exit is possible. It is this understanding that helps us design better exit programs with the women we serve.
Since 2014, RIA has grown from serving 5 women with 1 part-time staff member to serving more than 250 women yearly with 7 staff in two office locations, Framingham and Worcester. In the last year alone our staff delivered over 2400 encounters of care with our participants. These included texts, phone calls, court visits, prison groups, and case management and advocacy meetings across the state of Massachusetts. Over the last five months alone our staff have led over 60 trauma and recovery groups in both the prison and in community based sober living houses. In the last year, over 25% of our participants have been connected to new employment opportunities. And nearly 20% of our participants are currently receiving free trauma focused clinical therapy from our licensed social worker. Often when a woman leaves her trafficker, gets released from prison, or checks into rehab, she lands with nothing. RIA House is committed to helping her get back on her feet and move toward her goals. As a result, we have provided more than 85% of our participants with support focused on their basic needs; in the form of ID cards, bus passes, birth certificates, cell phones, and transportation assistance. Helping women step over these barriers means breaking out of the cycles of poverty and exploitation that prevent them from moving out of these broken systems and forward in their lives. We are making a dynamic impact on women's lives and are fighting arm in arm to help them reach their goals!