'A strong, silent support': Duluth advocate goes to bat for sexual assault survivors

"You feel you were able to be there for somebody, and that outweighs the nervousness or fear going into it." — Colleen Smith

PAVSA sexual assault advocate Colleen Smith poses for a portrait near the Lakewalk on Wednesday, Jan. 20. (Tyler Schank /
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It was difficult to share what she does at first.

“When you say ‘sexual assault advocate,’ people may not know what that means,” said Colleen Smith.

After two years, her short explanation is: “Basically, I’m on call, and if somebody is assaulted, I go to the hospital and advocate for them.”

When somebody presents at the hospital, PAVSA dispatches an advocate, whose job is to connect on a deeper level and make sure a victim-survivor is OK with whatever medical tests, medications or exams are on deck.

“We are there as a strong, silent support, if they need it,” Smith said.


Helping folks who are in crisis can be pretty traumatic, and there’s secondary trauma. Without volunteers like Smith, PAVSA employees would burn out, said Erin Naughton, PAVSA volunteer coordinator.

The nonprofit receives about 10 hospital calls a month, and they have about 20 active advocates.

Of Smith, Naughton said, “She has the best energy, and when she comes into a situation, she’s very open and attentive in a way that is so disarming. We are so lucky that she found us.”

Smith was introduced to PAVSA through Leadership Duluth.

013021.F.DNT.ADVOCATE_Erin Naughton.JPG
Erin Naughton

For her group’s service project, Smith worked with Naughton on gathering donations for hygiene kits and clothes for survivors to utilize when they leave the hospital. This allows them something to wear home besides a hospital gown if they surrender their clothes as evidence or their clothing isn’t salvageable, Naughton explained.

Once the service project was done, Smith knew she wasn’t, and she signed up to become an advocate.


The 40-hour training covers race, class, gender, LGBTQIA issues, structures of oppression and more. We want to make sure the people are leaning in and learning about sexual violence, how to support all people and our community’s resources, Naughton said.

For Smith, having her eyes opened to the world of advocacy, the justice system and possible cultural differences was tough.

“I’m a white female walking into a situation where it could be a Native American woman, and they might not trust me just because of my skin color. That was being white color blind.”

Smith hasn’t been turned away yet. “People are in such a vulnerable situation, they recognize that you show up, and you’re there to help,” she said.

Advocacy is about reminding the person that they know themselves best, hearing where they’re coming from, asking questions and grounding them. “I’m just a voice to amplify your voice,” added Naughton of the work.

Shifts run from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., when PAVSA staff is no longer in the office. Smith is on call twice a month, and off during summer, a busy time in her profession.

When she’s on call, Smith is methodical. She has her hospital clothes laid out and a bag ready with a water bottle, snacks, a phone charger and a notebook with information from her training. She also uses it to record the person’s pronouns, the names of doctors and nurses, etc.

When a call is complete, advocates may make sure the survivor has a good plan for leaving the hospital. They may assist with a bus ticket or other transportation. If follow-up care or legal help is needed afterward, PAVSA makes the call.


The advocate’s contact ends at the hospital door, which was difficult for Smith.

“Being in a super intimate moment and setting them off in the world, that’s part of the advocacy, unfortunately, that you let them go and wish them the best,” Smith said.

    Smith has gone on fewer than 12 calls during her time as an advocate, and while she still gets nerves, her confidence has grown.
    “One of my big fears when I first started was that I was going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. Two years down the road, I’ve definitely learned that there is nothing wrong that you can say. You’re there to help, you’re there to provide support, and you can’t screw that up.”

    While the work is gratifying, it’s also emotionally draining.

    “As much as you’re providing support for other people, you’re human, also, and you have to feel how you’re feeling,” Smith said.

    PAVSA is adamant that their staff and volunteers take care of themselves.

    “Self-care is super important. You can’t be a good advocate unless you’re a good advocate for yourself, unless you’re taking care of yourself,” Smith said.

    Her self-care varies depending on the length and heaviness of a call. Typically, she’ll go home, shower and snuggle her dog while watching a campy TV show. She also has a solid support system on which she leans.

    “Sometimes, people want to be the super advocate,” Naughton said. “There is no Olympic medal for suffering through trying to save everybody. That’s not what advocacy is, and I think she really gets that message,” Naughton said of Smith.

    Along with having a staff member available as backup during hospital calls, PAVSA conducts monthly debriefings, where advocates can talk and support each other. Outside of these communications, they are unable to share information from their calls.

    The work gets the adrenaline pumping, Smith said. It’s tough, but no matter how nervous she feels going in, she always leaves feeling reassured about why she does it.

    “I don’t want to say you feel better, but you feel you were able to be there for somebody, and that outweighs the nervousness or fear going into it,” Smith said.

    Becoming an advocate has changed her life.

    It has challenged her to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. She has also learned to sit in silence with others versus fill it with chatter, and she approaches situations personally and professionally with more patience and kindness.

    “I don't think you can understand the gravity of how something can change your reality until you dive into it,” she said, “and that's definitely what this has done for me.”


    Contact Erin Naughton at for more information about PAVSA's sexual assault advocacy.

    Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

    Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

    She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

    Contact her: 218-723-5346,
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