Amanda Rodriguez, an Adventist lawyer who has won numerous awards for her work on human trafficking, is executive director of TurnAround, where she leads a staff committed to aiding survivors of sexual and domestic violence — a job made more difficult by the pandemic. She talks about the challenges of her work and the upcoming virtual benefit, featuring Take 6. Everyone is invited!
Question: You are the executive director of TurnAround, an organization in Baltimore, Maryland that provides services to survivors of rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking. How long has it been active? How many people work for TurnAround?
Answer: TurnAround is 42 years old this year. The agency started with a focus on sexual violence and that expanded over time. The agency is known for showing up for survivors and, in my experience, whenever there was a gap in services for survivors TurnAround showed up and expanded to meet that survivor’s needs. We grew from a very small agency to our current size of about 30 people on staff.
How long have you been the director?
I worked at TurnAround for just over three years, left briefly to focus on state policy, and then came back in December of 2019 as director.
TurnAround is hosting a virtual benefit on Sunday, October 4, featuring Take 6, the Grammy-winning a cappella group that started at Oakwood. How will the virtual benefit work? How many people do you expect will attend? Where will Take 6 be singing from? How did you get Take 6 to agree to perform for the benefit?
Just like everyone else, we have had to convert our in-person fundraiser to a virtual one, with very little experience on how to make that work. God answered an unasked prayer and it seemed like every time I checked in on a friend, he or she would mention that they knew someone who was doing production of online events, videography for online events, or marketing for online events. Now, we have a great team putting it together!
The benefit will include musical guests — including Take 6 — a reading by survivors, including award-winning author Jeannie Vanasco, a ribbon-cutting for our newly renovated office spaces, and a silent auction. There may be a celebrity guest who pops in, too! We hope it is an evening, not to focus on what’s going on with the world, but to celebrate our clients and staff who have transformed during this incredibly difficult time.
I would be thrilled if we had 200 attend the benefit, but because we are going to be streaming on different platforms, I am hoping many more join us for the inspiring evening we have planned.
The Take 6 members will be joining us from their various home bases for two incredible songs! We will also have music from Randy Preston and Kaboom Box.
I am still not quite sure how the whole Take 6 thing happened. I have respected them so much over the years and we were coming down to the wire to find a musical artist willing to participate — so I just emailed their manager. They were incredibly gracious and agreed to not only record some music for us to use but also to post on their social media platforms about the event. I feel incredibly blessed and again, this was an answer to prayer.
How will this benefit be different from previous benefits you have hosted? Is it an annual event? How will it be the same?
This is an annual event that normally happens in a local shopping center after-hours. It’s a lively event that has a live auction, musical guests, and booths by local restaurants.
Our local businesses have been so impacted by the pandemic, but several are still donating gift cards to support us in spite of it all. It’s extremely inspiring to see how the community rallies around our clients in that way.
This is our first big event since I took over as director so in a lot of ways it will be completely different than what we have done in the past.
How can people attend or donate?
Registration is on our website: TurnAroundInc.org. You can donate there, too. You can also donate by texting “TurnAround” to 41444.
How much money do you hope to raise?
This is a tricky question. In a normal year, we raise about $40,000 during our event. The reality is that our need this year is a lot greater and I am hoping we surpass that.
Where does TurnAround get its major funding from? How are you connected with the county and local government?
We are funded through federal, state, and local grants. We also have foundations who give regularly to support specific programs, like our anti-trafficking program. We also rely on funding from individuals to sustain our programming.
One of the things I am most proud of at TurnAround is that our clients pay nothing for our services, and we are only able to do that through the generosity of our community.
Where does TurnAround get referrals from? How closely do you work with the court system? How do people know to call TurnAround when they are in trouble?
We get referrals from a variety of places: law enforcement, the court system, hospitals, colleges/universities, other service agencies, and a lot from word-of-mouth.
Survivors, their supporters (family and friends), and our partners can call our 24/7 helpline if they are in need of help at (443) 279-0379.
We do work with the court system. We have a legal program that connects survivors to attorneys who practice a variety of types of law: family, landlord/tenant, and victim rights. We also work with those charged with domestic violence through our Abuser Intervention Program. Lastly, survivors of trafficking may also be charged with crimes as a result of their victimization — they may be forced to trespass, or hold drugs, for example. We work with those survivors and refer them to appropriate legal resources.
How many people does TurnAround help every year? Every month? What are the main ways that you support people?
We help approximately 2,000 individuals in a non-COVID year; however, this year the need is a lot greater. It looks as though we may serve closer to 3,000 this year.
The numbers vary dramatically month to month depending on the type of service.
We provide counseling, court advocacy, case management, legal support, and crisis intervention (for instance clothing, food, and emergency shelter). We also have a very active community engagement team who provides training in our community to nearly 10,000 people a year.
How has your work changed as a result of the pandemic? Are there more calls? And is it harder to help people? Are you working from home?
The pandemic has been a whirlwind for us. It was on my one hundredth day at the agency — a Thursday — when we got word that schools were closing the following Monday. By Tuesday, we had transitioned all of our services to remote/virtual.
At first, there was a significant drop in our call volume. We were nervous that our community thought we were closed, like everything else. Our community engagement team focused on getting the word out through social media about our availability. Our reach is now close to 20,000 individuals a month.
As a result of that push and the increased need in our community we saw a 300% increase in call volume based on our normal range overall. There was a 200% increase in requests for shelter and a 130% increase in those seeking counseling. The cases were also a lot worse.
It is harder to help under the present circumstances, but my team is doing an amazing job. They show up every day and support in any way they can.
I am still mainly working from home. We actually had to move offices (it was scheduled to happen before COVID hit) during the pandemic and I have been going in to work on the build-out of our new downtown Baltimore space.
The staff go in only if there is a survivor who needs help and could not otherwise receive remote services. That mainly means our child survivors. The youngest survivor receiving services right now is two years old and as you can imagine, it would be impossible to provide services via Zoom for that toddler.
So you say the call volume has increased. Do you have a specific explanation as to why?
I don't know that we have adequate data to say exactly why right now — although based on my experience, the pandemic has created a unique situation that elevates stress, creates financial strain, and does not allow for any cooling-off period because families are constantly together. All of those play into an increased risk for violence but taken together it's more like a perfect storm.
You are a Seventh-day Adventist. Are there other Adventists that work for TurnAround? Does TurnAround get any support from the church?
I am a Seventh-day Adventist. There are a few other Seventh-day Adventists at TurnAround, as well as others representing lots of different faiths and opinions on faith.
We do not get monetary support from the church, but we have had local churches volunteer quite a few times.
What is your background? How did you come to work at TurnAround?
I am an attorney by education. My plan was always to go into transactional law (the kind that does not require talking to people). I was terribly shy growing up. But God can use anyone for His purposes. I was looking for a job during the recession and the only one available was for the local prosecutor’s office. I took the job and was trying hundreds of cases a week within a few months. I had to get over my fear of public speaking quickly!
TurnAround was the agency where I referred survivors when I had a domestic violence, sexual violence, or human trafficking case and the agency was amazing. I believed in the mission even then. I was the only prosecutor trying human trafficking cases at our office. I worked a particularly difficult case, and the survivor in that case really opened my eyes to how society judges survivors. That experience instilled in me the need to be a voice for those that do not have a voice.
I left prosecution shortly afterwards and worked in state policy on issues around human trafficking and domestic violence. I was then offered a leadership position at TurnAround. Four years later, I am now the Executive Director. I feel incredibly blessed and thankful that I listened to God’s voice as He found talents I did not even know I had.
Where did you attend school?
I went to Adventist schools (Takoma Academy, Highland View Academy, Washington Adventist University) until my second year of college, when I transferred to the University of Maryland for undergrad and then the University of Baltimore for Law School.
What do you feel is the most difficult thing about the work that you do? What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I love what I do and have found fulfillment in this work. There are some dark and difficult cases, but even knowing that a survivor was able to access us is a success. They can start to heal, and they have a place where they can feel safe.
The staff inspire me every day, as do our clients. I often have people ask how I can hear all the experiences and not be cynical or jaded. You can see it that way — or see the hope in the eyes of a survivor when someone believes them for the first time, or see them use a coping mechanism they learned from one of our counselors to get through a triggering moment. We also have a wall of hands holding keys for the first time — each one a survivor moving into their first home.
I wish we could stop violence and maybe someday we will, but right now survivors need a first place to turn, and for many, that’s TurnAround.
Amanda Rodriguez, a graduate of Highland View Academy in 2001, University of Maryland at College Park in 2005, and University of Baltimore School of Law in 2007, was named executive director of TurnAround in December 2019.
She is a former state and federal prosecutor and has served in the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force for over 10 years. Before her current job, she served as Counsel for Policy and Legal Advocacy at the University of Maryland SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Rodriguez.
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