Missoula rape survivor finds cure in a cause

Barb Jenkins, center, stands with friends during the Missoula Marathon wearing T-shirts printed with the logo of her new nonprofit Victim Services for Jane Doe. (Courtesy photo)

Barb Jenkins laced up her shoes and crossed the finish line on a sunny July morning, having completed the Missoula Half-Marathon despite the pain in her foot. Yet reaching the finish line marked more than an athletic achievement – it punctuated her story of perseverance.

Jenkins, now 50, was raped in a downtown Missoula park in October 2015, and getting back on the trail once seemed impossible. But as the prosecuting attorney once said, today’s Barb Jenkins isn’t the same woman she met when the criminal trial began last year.

And Barb Jenkins would agree.

“It was a huge victory,” Jenkins said of completing the race. “I refuse to be diminished by what happened. I don’t want to highlight what happened, but I want to say there’s life after rape and hope after rape. There’s resilience of the human spirit we can tap into.”

Jenkins admits that she may never fully escape the memories of what happened that October afternoon, though she has found the courage to move on. It has come in stages – small steps toward the greater goal of taking her life back.

After enduring the trial in District Court, where her attacker was sentenced to 40 years with 20 suspended, Jenkins joined a self defense class for survivors of sexual assault through the Learning Center at Red Willow in Missoula, where she was struck with an idea that would ultimately move her forward.

As a runner, she had helped raise money for foster care and other nonprofits, and she realized in a moment of conversation that she could do the same to fill a community void. But instead of raising money for another organization, she would start her own nonprofit and bootstrap its fledgling mission.

The idea gave rise to Victim Services for Jane Doe.

“After I made it through all the trial, the sentencing and all that, I wanted to do sometime to give back,” Jenkins said. “Watching my family members, there was little to no services available to them as secondary victims.”

Jenkins, who has been married for 27 years and has two children, received strong support from a host of community organizations after her attack, including the Student Advocacy Resource Center at the University of Montana, the YWCA and Crime Victim Advocates at Missoula County.

The organizations helped Jenkins work through the trauma and navigate the legal system before, during and after the trial. But despite their support, Jenkins realized her family had suffered as well, including her husband and son.

“There was the trauma they were going through watching me,” Jenkins said. “I’m a wife and mother, and having someone you love be hurt in that way is very hard to deal with. They didn’t have any counseling available to them, and I think they really needed that.”

Jenkins, who speaks candidly of her experience, said her attacker destroyed her spirit. For months, she couldn’t complete a day without breaking down in tears. She was fearful of being alone, of walking or running on the trails she once loved.

Watching her family suffer alongside her added to her pain. That, perhaps, was the hardest part of all. But it’s there where she hopes to make a difference, believing it will help others in the future “because there will be more.”

“Secondary trauma is very real – it’s just as valid as what the actual person that was assaulted went through,” Jenkins said. “In some ways, I think it may be harder. They watched me suffer and they can’t do anything to erase it. Not until he (the attacker) was shipped off to prison did we feel like we could breathe.”

After her attack, Jenkins went to First Step, part of a community response team based at Providence St. Patrick Hospital, where she was initially tested in the aftermath of the assault. She reported the attack through Crime Victim Advocates and was assigned a case worker, who helped her navigate the process that would follow.

They also paid for private counseling, which lasted for more than year.

Through Victim Services for Jane Doe, Jenkins looks to give back to those who helped her while expanding the services to secondary victims. She set a goal of raising $4,000 by running the Half-Marathon and succeeded, securing $2,600 three days before the race.

With $4,000 in the nonprofit’s account, which is now registered with the state, Jenkins plans to present four $1,000 checks to the Student Advocacy Resource Center, Crime Victim Advocates, the YWCA and First Step. She also hopes to find counselors willing to donate time or discount their fees to help secondary victims.

“It’s not my intention to highlight myself, but I cant deny the springboard that led to this,” she said. “It’s my intention to get it funded with grant money and have it there for people when they need it, and try to get some of the counselors in the area to partner and provide their services for those who seek some extra help.”

Jenkins said her experience has brought her family closer together, and while she still suffers from post-traumatic stress and is still afraid to be alone on the trail, her new cause has forced her to lace up her shoes and open the door.

She was also heartened by the support she found on the race course. The T-shirts she’d printed for Victim Services for Jane Doe didn’t hurt, and those wearing them as she crossed the bridge to the finish line brought a smile to her face.

The bridge is just above the park where her life changed.

“The biggest turning point for me was the anniversary date, when I went back down to the river with my advocate and grabbed a flat rock and made it into a tombstone and tossed it into the river,” Jenkins said. “It was my way of burying Jane Doe and taking Barb Jenkins back.”