Parents, children, dogs and Islanders of all ages congregated in Ocean park Saturday morning to take part in the CONNECT to End Violence walk to raise awareness around sexual assault.

“I want to make it a family-friendly event to de-stigmatize the issues around sexual violence,” said Jennifer Neary, program director of CONNECT to End Violence. “We’re trying to make it less of a scary concept for people because there’s such a high prevalence of it.”

The organization is a division of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and about 30 people attended the annual walk that helps shed light on a subject that affects all communities, but one that is often overlooked.

According to the National Institutes of Health, less than five per cent of sexual assaults are reported.

Pricila Vilacal and Jennifer Neary led the walk from Ocean Park into town. — Ray Ewing

“It’s hard, especially with sexual violence, because it’s the most underreported crime,” said Ms. Neary. “You can only go off of what has been reported...which we know the majority of sexual assaults are not.”

Several people who joined the walk said they were there because they had been personally affected by sexual assault.

“Exactly a year ago today, my daughter was trafficked. She was missing for 12 days,” said Shannon, who, like many on the walk, asked that her last name not be included. “She is the strongest person I know. I was dreading today because this time last year, my daughter’s life changed forever. And my life changed forever.”

Her daughter, a minor, is currently receiving treatment. The crime took place out of state.

“I’m just looking forward to seeing her thrive. I couldn’t have picked a better thing to do today. I really couldn’t,” Shannon said.

Signs with statistics about sexual assault were put up throughout town. — Ray Ewing

Shannon was accompanied by her mother and a friend who had told her about the event a few days prior. Shannon arrived in a teal shirt, the color of sexual assault awareness. She did not know what the color signified until she approached the registration table, which was filled with teal pens and awareness ribbon pins.

“Everything is coming together in a beautiful way,” she said of the coincidence.

In addition to the bright teal accessories, the registration table held placards in both English and Portuguese that outlined the services offered by CONNECT to End Violence. The organization has a 24/7 crisis hotline, counseling and community education among its variety of support programs for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. The organization also provides rental assistance and other financial help for people trying to leave abusive situations. Any money donated to CONNECT during the walk will go towards these survivor services.

Connect to End Violence team is part of Martha's Vineyard Community Services. — Ray Ewing

“Our daughter is a survivor of domestic violence, and when her father and I were navigating things...CONNECT was incredibly helpful to us,” said Susan, another walker at the event. “When we were able to actually have our daughter get out of the situation she was in...they were an unbelievable support for her through their programming.”

Once the group gathered, Ms. Neary and Pricila Vilaca, CONNECT’s outreach coordinator, gave opening remarks in English and Portuguese.

“This event is really important to our team and our community. It gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about sexual assault — that it happens here on this Island,” Ms. Neary said. “Thank you for bringing this issue out of the shadows and into the forefront....As we go along our path, we’re going to follow signs and there will be some statistics for you to read along the way.”

CONNECT posted a variety of statistics throughout Oak Bluffs pertaining to sexual assault. These statistics — including the fact that indigenous women are two times more likely to experience sexual violence, and that one in 71 men have been raped in their lifetime — come from national surveys and studies. According to Ms. Neary, Martha’s Vineyard is in alignment with these numbers.

The organization also hosts a domestic violence awareness walk in October.

“It’s humbling. It reminds you what you’re doing and why you’re here,” Ms. Neary said after the walk ended. “You hope you helped at least one person.”

Visit Connect to End Violence.