WINGS’ mission is to break the cycle and heal the wounds of childhood sexual abuse by providing education, advocacy and support to adult survivors, loved ones, providers and communities.
When you are an adult survivor, it’s important to know that healing is possible, yet the trauma you’re trying to heal from can be significant, even lifelong. It may have become woven into a part of your identity. It requires specialized resources and supports to heal and transform.
This is why WINGS, based in Denver, exists, and their programs have helped thousands of survivors find hope and healing.
Executive director Jenny Stith, a survivor herself, says WINGS was founded by survivors for survivors, out of their own need to heal, “and the realization that so many others needed the same things.” These early WINGS founders had all experienced sexual abuse within the family, or incest, yet they soon realized that all forms of sexual abuse were similarly harmful, and all needed a response that could help adults walk their paths of healing.
The fact that WINGS works with adult survivors makes it unique in the field. “We regularly receive requests from survivors in other states and countries wanting support. Right now, we do the best we can to find referrals for resources in their area and to provide education that can help them find their way. We’re on a journey, however, to build our capacity so we can be available in all ways to all survivors.”
WINGS’ flagship program consists of therapist-facilitated support groups, which bring survivors together so they can learn about the ways their lives have been impacted by this trauma, and so they can heal together with other survivors who have gone through similar experiences. Survivors learn they are not alone and that they can engage in meaningful trauma recovery, rebuild healthy lives and relationships, and hold thriving, productive careers.
Yet, that healing journey can seem staggering. In America today, one in four girls and one in six boys experience some type of sexual abuse before they turn 18. Current estimates report 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the United States with a total lifetime economic impact of at least $9.3 billion, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be an underestimate of the true impact, because childhood sexual abuse is underreported.
“Many survivors feel they’re the only ones to whom this abuse has ever happened, and WINGS brings survivors together so they can see they’re not alone. They’re not struggling because of anything they did, either. Survivors aren’t bad, and they’re not broken. We suffer trauma from the fact that someone we trusted harmed us when we were children. Having a safe container to work through those issues is transformative. It speaks to my heart, because it doesn’t matter how long ago this happened or at what age – people still deserve a process to heal, and WINGS is designed to help facilitate that healing process while teaching others why it’s important.
“Sadly, our culture hasn’t accepted how large of an issue this is, and for me personally, trying to connect with others in a way that can open their hearts gives me passion for the work. We’re trying to give people tools to know better and do better so survivors can have what they need to heal and thrive.”
Societal change is a daunting challenge, but a personally empowering one for many associated with WINGS, including Insperity District Manager Trent Feist. A graduate of the program himself, Feist nominated WINGS for the Community Hero honor.
“This is a segment of the nonprofit industry that gets very little recognition, because it’s not a pleasant topic to talk about. WINGS has done an incredible job elevating its position within the community and creating opportunities to bring this issue to the forefront through conversations with community leaders and donors and collaboration with other nonprofits. “I’m not aware of another nonprofit that does the direct work to support adult survivors that WINGS does, and that really sets them apart. They’re in the muck every day dealing with this dark side of society. There are great people working for WINGS, and this honor (Community Hero) is significant because they’re not used to recognition from outside their industry. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on how meaningful it is to have their efforts and their work recognized.”
Stith joined WINGS in 2013 when she decided to make big changes in her life after encountering extensive challenges to heal this trauma in her own life in another state. She moved to Denver to work for WINGS because it was one of the only organizations in the country with a mission poised to support others like herself. At the time, the organization was in its 32nd year, yet was still struggling with chronic “start-up” issues, because the mission was so ignored, stigmatized and under-resourced. These became cornerstone challenges that Stith addressed head on.
“This is an issue that landed in my life, so I know how hard it is to heal and how hard it is to talk about. What I’ve realized in my time at WINGS is that most survivors face incredible challenges getting services or even being validated that they need support to heal, and that is not okay. I believe we can do better as a culture. We should do better. So we began helping the wider Denver community do better at seeing this issue, at accepting it – and most importantly, at resourcing it’s advancement.”
Stith stepped into the role of interim executive director with a background in health care development amid a crisis point in the agency, a pattern that had plagued WINGS every three to five years since its founding. She was unfamiliar with Insperity, but Feist had expressed interest in getting more involved with WINGS. Stith met with him about joining the WINGS board, and he walked her through what the organization needed from an HR perspective and encouraged her to look at outsourcing those services.
It was a good match for both. Feist has been part of the WINGS board since, “though I recuse myself any time a decision about renewal (with Insperity) comes up. Jenny has always said, though, that she sees no reason to look elsewhere.
“Because of everything Insperity has done and how much we’ve helped strengthen WINGS from an infrastructure standpoint, they really have a solid foundation to grow on. And we engage with them through our community involvement activities. There’s not another PEO out there that would do what Insperity has done.”
Stith agrees. “It has been fantastic to have a sophisticated HR function, especially when we were stalled in startup mode and needed to climb beyond, particularly with such a delicate mission in the balance. Insperity’s team has supported us and given us incredible visibility and validation through Trent’s involvement. Working with people of that caliber speaks volumes about the company. Insperity has been a game changer for us.”
WINGS earmarked their $5,000 charitable donation from Insperity — part of their Community Hero designation – to go to their Services for Survivors program providing confidential phone consultations and therapist-facilitated support groups to survivors. “This phone call may be the first time someone has ever shared what happened to them. They’re connecting with a trusted person. They’ll receive therapist referrals if that’s needed, and they can explore being eligible to join one of our therapist-facilitated support groups.
“The services are provided on a donation basis, so for survivors who can’t afford to contribute funds – and we never turn anyone away – that $5,000 will go a long way to supporting survivors’ healing.”
Stith hopes that part of the Community Hero honor means more people will learn about WINGS, particularly those impacted either directly or indirectly by this trauma. “This impacts so many people, and I want them to know that they’re not alone, this wasn’t their fault, they didn’t deserve it, and it’s never too late to heal. Anyone who needs support or wants to learn more about the healing journey, please visit our website.
“We want people to know that we’re here to support anyone who needs it. And if our mission inspires you to join us as a volunteer or supporter, we’d also love to speak with you.
“Standing for this issue is what will create the massive change our world needs, and we need a lot more folks on this side of things to make that change possible for adult survivors. We can do it – together.”