By Kristin Bender, STAFF WRITER from

Bay Area Women Against Rape has become the first rape crisis center in Northern California to certify a large group of Spanish-speaking sexual assault counselors.

Last weekend, the Oakland-based agency certified 32 volunteers who will staff the rape crisis hotline, counsel individuals and groups, help hospital staff and police with rape investigations, and assist with immigration paperwork for undocumented sexual assault victims.

"Our main target is to go out there and promote our services in the community. We also want to let (rape victims) know they aren't going to be alone and that they are going to receive culturally sensitive counseling in their language," said KristinaMolina, the agency's Latina outreach coordinator. The crisis hotline now will be covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week by Spanish-speaking volunteers as well as English-speaking volunteers, Molina said. Bay Area Women Against Rape now has 92 volunteers, including nearly three dozen who can speak Spanish, Molina said. That's up from just four Spanish speaking volunteers before the recent training, she said.

There are 37 rape crisis centers in Northern California and their organization is the first to certify a sizable group of Spanish-speaking volunteers, Molina said.

This is important because Latinos make up nearly 22 percent — roughly 87,000 people — of Oakland's population, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The group also serves other Alameda County cities that U.S. Census data show have a high number of Latinos, including Hayward, Livermore and San Leandro. Even before the new crew of Spanish-speaking volunteers was trained, about 20 percent of first-time clients were from the Latina community, according to data from 2006-07 fiscal year. During that time, the agency served 774 first-time clients, including 152 from the Latina community, according to internal data.

Marcia Blackstock, the executive director, said the agency started a Latina outreach program nearly a decade ago.

"That is when we realized that we had a lot more people in the community who only spoke Spanish or limited English who were being assaulted here or came to us with old assaults," Blackstock said. Getting the program up and running has taken time, she said. "It's been slow to develop the relationship between BAWAR and the community because of cultural issues and language issues. Now the time was right. We had to make our presence known enough to get people to trust us and know that we want to get involved."

New volunteers underwent 55 hours of training over the last nine weeks and have agreed to put in at least 36 hours a month for nine months. Organizations such as La Clinica de la Raza and Mujeres Unidas y Activas helped recruit volunteers who were trained in "dismantling all the myths about rape," Molina said.

In the Latina community, there are some distinctive issues around sexual assault, she said.

"Usually the perpetrator is telling (the victim) that if you report this (immigration) is going to take you back to Mexico or your home country.

"Also, many are Catholic and they feel a lot of guilt, especially younger girls. They are brought up to believe they have to be a virgin until they get married, so when they get assaulted they feel it's their responsibility to protect their virginity. We let them know that virginity is not something that is taken away, it's something that is given away with their full consent."

Founded in 1971 after a young girl at Berkeley High School received poor treatment from police and hospital staff following a rape, the agency responds to 4,000 calls for service from rape survivors and their family members.

The agency also educates roughly 11,000 people annually and runs the Victims/Offenders Reconciliation Program at California State Prison Solano, bringing together prisoners and crime victims to be partners in healing. The group also has a program called Brother's Keeper, which trains prisoners to spot potential suicide tendencies among San Quentin inmates and step in before they kill themselves.

In addition to helping establish rape crisis centers in Northern California, the agency staff has trained rape crisis professionals from Japan, India, Bosnia, Croatia and Hungary.