MISSOULA – The calls can come at any time. Jen Euell might be making dinner for her husband and 13-year-daughter or sleeping soundly at 3 a.m. But when she gets calls from work, she always picks up and finds a private place.
She might need to help someone having the worst day of her life.
For the past year, Euell has directed SARC, the Student Advocacy Resource Center at the University of Montana. SARC offers counseling services and a 24-hour crisis line (406-243-6559) for students and others dealing with sexual assault, relationship violence, bullying, intimidation or discrimination.
“Those phone calls are a vital part of the work,” she said. “I think all of us at SARC are just committed to the idea that we do not fail people. If they are in a situation that we respond to, and they need us, we are not willing to ever miss that call.”
Euell first came to UM in 1991, eventually earning master's degrees in social work and environmental science. As a student she worked at SARC before launching a career focused on improving equity for women and girls. She founded the GUTS (Girls Using Their Strengths) program, which she ran for 13 years, and then went on to direct programming for YWCA Missoula and the Women’s Foundation of Montana. But when the SARC director position became available, she jumped at the opportunity to return to her UM roots and help upgrade an organization that has meant so much to her.
“I love it here, I love the people, and I love the fact that there are so many people striving to make positive change on an ongoing basis, including our students, who are the biggest change-makers,” she said. “This role definitely offers me a personal connection again with our students in my day-to-day work.”
That work is never easy. SARC often is the confidential first call for students and others in the community who have experienced trauma or are suffering. They might be struggling to navigate the legal system or work with the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX. Housed in UM’s Curry Health Center, SARC is there to help, and Euell has spent her first year overseeing improvements to this vital organization.
“If a student has the courage to come forward and say, ‘I need help,’ it’s the University’s responsibility to be there, and that’s what SARC does,” she said. “We are the ones who are there. We are the first-line responders.”
In the past year, SARC has doubled its staff to four. That includes Euell, an outreach educator, a program coordinator and direct service coordinator. Euell also oversees seven graduate student interns who provide counseling and advocacy services. These students learn valuable job skills while working toward a master's in counseling, a master of clinical social work or a doctorate in psychology.
“I feel like my work with the student counselors is so rewarding,” Euell said. “They are amazing humans who are learning to be care providers and professionals in the world. I learn from them every day, and I’m here for them when they’ve had a really hard client conversation. I have the opportunity to help and observe their development and success, and, yeah, it’s pretty amazing.”
SARC also engages about 10 undergraduate advocate volunteers. These students do outreach work like bystander training – helping prevent sexual assaults before they happen – or trainings in diversity-equity-inclusion or healthy relationships. Euell said organizations such as fraternities, sororities, the Women’s Resource Center or Grizzly Athletics often request such resources, adding that undergraduate advocates come from a wide variety of majors across campus.
“They just want to help – to have a work experience where they really feel like they are making a difference,” Euell said.
Gabriella Ji, a fourth-year student in UM’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Program, started working at SARC as a peer advocate and then progressed to clinical intern work – conducting therapy sessions, holding groups and providing Title IX advocacy for clients she sees on a regular basis.
“I have become very interested in trauma-focused work,” Ji said. “Being in school, it’s great to learn the theoretical backgrounds of theories and how therapies come to be, but at SARC I definitely get to have a firsthand, more-empirical learning experience.”
Ji said SARC made her realize that many people in the community don’t have the resources she took for granted, like access to shelter, food, water and other basic needs. At one point she worked with a woman who had been sexually assaulted while living on the street. Ji held the woman’s hand during a medical forensic examination, trying to help her not be further traumatized. She also worked with a team that connected the woman to the Missoula Food Bank, a female-only shelter and a job-training program.
“We ignited the flame of hope for that person,” Ji said. “Working at SARC, I’ve also seen the traditional therapy we do, over time, have a really strong effect on our clients. We get to see their growth, which is really rewarding and amazing.”
Euell said SARC employs a person-centered, empowerment model.
“Oftentimes, our clients feel like they were in a situation where they weren’t able to keep themselves safe and didn’t feel like they had control over the situation,” she said. “In order for them to feel safe and take back that control in their life, our job is basically to say we are here to support you and whatever decision you make. Here are the potential options, and this is what they would look like.”
She stresses that SARC is a totally confidential service. Staff members are not required to report anything to the authorities unless someone’s life is in danger or a child has been hurt. The victim decides whether any charges advance to the authorities. Euell said it’s not uncommon for police officers to visit the SARC office, so staff members can sit with a victim while a report is made. In this way they don’t need to visit a police station or have anyone see them talking to an officer.
Euell said the 24-hour crisis line would not be possible without a valuable community partnership with YWCA Missoula. She said SARC has seven shared cellphones, and someone is always on duty when the University is in session. The YWCA, staffed by community advocates with parallel training, also helps with the crisis line.
“We don’t always have our student interns available when school is not in session or it’s a holiday,” Euell said, “so our partnership with YWCA Missoula is essential. And while our counseling services are for UM students, anyone in the community can call the crisis line. We will never turn away someone in need.”
SARC also partners closely with the First Step Resource Center at Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, which can collect forensic evidence of assault or abuse. (The phone number for that organization is 406-329-5776.) SARC offers First Step response in two-week shifts that alternate with YWCA Missoula.
Euell said more staffing has increased SARC’s capacity, and the office also has moved to a new electronic records system. She also is helping implement Culture of Respect, a national program that is conducting a two-year review of SARC. Culture of Respect studies UM’s services as it trains SARC in best practices. The organization also is undergoing a strategic planning process that will help it provide more and better prevention outreach services, including a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) liaison to better serve those populations.
“I think we are providing better services than ever before,” Euell said. “We have people with more experience and expertise than ever before, and Culture of Respect will help us ensure we are in line with the best practices across the nation.”
And always be there to take those calls.