Stony Brook volunteers organizing bags for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. It was part of the third annual SUNY’s Got Your Back event on March 11, 2019. MAYA BROWN/THE STATESMAN

Stony Brook University partnered with the State University of New York (SUNY) to host the third annual SUNY’s Got Your Back event on Monday, March 11.

Volunteers gathered in Student Activities Center Ballroom A to create hundreds of comfort bags for victims and survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence who seek help from shelters, centers and hospitals on Long Island. Hundreds of students filed into the room eager to help.

“One minute after we opened the doors, students started coming in and it shows how much SBU supports our survivors,” Dr. Smita Majumdar Das, director of Center for Prevention and Outreach, said. “It’s amazing and I’m awestruck.”

With the help of roughly 300 students making bags and 200 other volunteers helping with assembly lines, the goal of assembling 2,500 bags was reached in less than an hour, a remarkable time for the event, Coordinator of Sexual Violence Prevention and Outreach Programs, Christine Szaraz said.

The survivor support bags will be provided to the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk (VIBS) for victims at the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Centers. According to Survivor Advocate & Prevention Specialist, Samantha Winter, Stony Brook University promised to make a minimum of 2,500 bags to be donated to the SANE Centers.

“I feel that this event is important because with my role, I want students to have something that will make them feel better,” Winter said. “Seeing so many students show up is a great feeling.”

Winter explained that in the past, the event was smaller and only produced around 400 bags, as fraternities and sororities would provide all of the supplies.

As students looped around in assembly lines, they placed pamphlets providing guidance, a cloth towel, toiletries, cosmetic kits, deodorant, tissues, writing utensils and a blue bouncy ball into bright blue bags.

“Volunteering through CPO raises awareness and it helps survivors feel that there are people on their side,” Val Kehoe, a junior social work major, said.

According to SUNY’s website, the initiative was launched in April 2016 and has given the opportunity for students, faculty, staff and community members to create kits for victims and survivors while learning ways of better preventing and responding to violence. The future goal is to build a New York where bags like these will no longer be needed.

President of the Graduate Student Organization and public health graduate student, James Vassallo, said, “I’m happy that SBU, as a SUNY [school], can support this initiative because it’s truly a great cause.” In the beginning, the initiative was proposed to only last a year with the goal of 2,016 bags; however, the program has far surpassed this goal with more than 28,500 bags assembled at SUNY’s Got Your Back events, as reported by SUNY.

The guest speaker was DJ Zeke Thomas, a sexual assault awareness advocate & TV host. Thomas, a survivor of sexual trauma himself, is the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s first ever male spokesman.

“This event is important because it gets college students, the changemakers, involved and engaged,” Thomas said, expressing his amazement at the turnout and the fact that all of the bags were packed quickly.

Thomas was sexually assaulted for the first time when he was 12 and later raped at age 27.

“At first I packed the fear away and didn’t leave the house for three days,” he said, referring to the incident that took place when he was 27. “These things happen to you and they’re feelings you need to express and deal with.”

He initially felt as if he didn’t have anyone to talk to and told students to be open to talking to people. “You have to change your consciousness to believe that there are good people in this world. Once you start the rollercoaster of negative, it’s hard to build yourself back up.” he said.

He explained how talking about what he went through was the most important thing he did. “If you ignore your feelings and you don’t give them value or weight, how are you supposed to grow?” he asked. “When you don’t deal with trauma, it just builds up. I allowed myself to dig my grave,” Thomas said.

Thomas pointed out the stigma surrounding male victims, adding that he was told his rape wasn’t the same as a woman’s because of his gender. “There shouldn’t be any stigma surrounding rape,” he said. “Rape is the murder of the brain. It’s not the act, it’s the aftermath, because those trauma effects can linger.”

Thomas explained that although music and being a DJ are his passions, they only played a tiny part in the work that had to be done.

“When you’re trying to fix something, you have to change your behavior,” he said. “You have to evolve and change it up.”