In case you haven’t heard, The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc (affectionately known to many as “CVC”) turns 50 this year! We have been putting “Victims First” since 1973 and in honor of our anniversary, I had the opportunity to sit down with founding member and former Executive Director, Peggy Gusz, to talk about how CVC (as it’s known today) got its start and grew to the agency we know today.
Peggy shared with me that at some point during the early years of The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc, someone referred to the group of women that had the idea and followed through as “pioneers”. Peggy paused and said, “Well, we never thought of ourselves like that but yeah, I guess we were”. That is how most of our conversation went, with Peggy crediting many for the idea and creation of CVC including CVC’s first CEO, Connie Noblet. Connie unofficially served as CVC’s Executive Director and she officially took the title in January of 1974. Peggy moved into the role in 1988 and retired in 2016.
Although The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc name didn’t come about until the mid 80’s, the idea for what we now know as CVC came about in the summer of 1973. Linda Bocher, whose husband was a supervising physician in the Emergency Room in Chester County Hospital, discovered among her community a group with shared belief in the need for a support system for victims of sexual violence. Peggy joined the group a few months after the initial conversations had started and after a general meeting of everyone interested, the group decided to put themselves out there as a resource and advocates for victims of sexual violence. At first, everyone was a volunteer and they operated informally as a resource to law enforcement with one phone line from the top floor of a local church who in partnership with the YWCA donated the space. Just like today, news of services they were providing spread by word of mouth through law enforcement and community in general. In the fall of 1973, the group finally obtained a small amount of funding and officially incorporated as the Rape Crisis Council of Chester County and that started the story of CVC as a trusted resource for victims and their families here in Chester County.
When I asked Peggy how we got our start, she replied that “the right people were at the right place at the right time”. Women and men from different backgrounds, professions and with different connections all came together and recognized a need for services for victim/survivors of sexual violence. From the hospitals, to law enforcement, to the courts, to legislators and in the schools and universities, it worked because they had the right people to connect with so many different parts of the system. Peggy shared that they faced many obstacles in all those different parts of the system. Nurses were allies and they helped to change attitudes of doctors and police officers in the emergency room. Even back then, Chester County had so many local police departments, the group talked to them one on one and one at a time about their services and in the schools, reaching out to the schools, class by class at a time to talk about prevention and education.
Today, CVC has two hotlines, one for victims of sexual violence and one for victims of all other crimes, these hotlines are answered 24/7 and 365 days a year. Back then, the hotline wasn’t immediately utilized and we relied on the network of local law enforcement throughout Chester County to refer clients to us so the system was even more difficult for victims to navigate. And unfortunately, the attitude of law enforcement towards victims of sexual assault was not always ideal so the group focused attention to make sure to bring law enforcement in as a true partner in the organization. Word spread through law enforcement of the work they were doing and they slowly began to reach out to the group to help with difficult cases.
So how did we get from the Rape Crisis Council of Chester County to The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc? In 1976, one of the local police departments reached out for help with a homicide case because they were familiar with our work with victims of sexual assault. We provided supportive services to this family and from that the notion of a “comprehensive victim advocacy agency” was born.
Interesting fact that Peggy shared with me that I didn’t know, the sexual assault hotline was first and then a few years later we created the second “other crimes” hotline. But, our hotline for victims of sexual violence spells “rape” which was intentional to make it easier for people to remember. Our other crimes hotline was just picked at random because “help” was already taken at that time.
Our Prevention Education Department got its start in 1974. Our first “PE presentation” was a joint effort between the Officer Nick Bereda from Tredyffrin when he invited Connie and Peggy to give a brief presentation after his presentation at a local junior high. They talked about child abuse. Peggy was adamant that this presentation moving forward would not be in an assembly form to large groups but smaller groups. It was a difficult contrast in that the officer would talk about prevention in terms of self defense. From that contrast was born the concepts of primary prevention taught by our educators today.
As we grew from serving victim/survivors of sexual violence to victims of all crimes there was some concern raised about the word rape being in the name of the organization. Because our services were growing beyond providing services to only sexual assault victims, we changed our name from the Rape Crisis Council of Chester County to the Victim and Witness Assistance Services of Chester County, Inc.. Then, we were working with the DA’s office and they decided to staff a victim witness unit within the DA’s office to coordinate the appearance of victims and witnesses to court. We began to get calls about subpoenas and other questions related to the DA’s Office Unit so we changed one last time to avoid confusion with the victim unit at the DA’s office. In 1986, we officially became The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc.
At this point you may be thinking, how long is this article going to be? Fifty years is an awfully long time! I’ll focus on some highlights and you can always check out our website, follow us on social media or stop by our office on Market Street to learn more!
We were not the first sexual assault center in PA, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were first and others shortly followed. In 1975, those centers already in existence as well as people interested in attended a three-day conference at West Chester University held by CVC and attendees were from across the entire Commonwealth and some nearby states. The conference was called “Concern 1975” and it is credited with starting PCAR, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which continues today to be one of our largest funders.
Community outreach was huge part of the early success of CVC, each member of the group went out regularly to talk to small local clubs and womens’ groups to about the services they offered and the first fundraising event held for the group was a small cocktail party that raised $750 that was used to start the hotline. Those small presentations were key to the groups’ early success and small talks like that continue to be a critical part of CVC’s outreach. New Century Club and Junior New Century Club were some of CVC’s first supporters. The Junior New Century Club was instrumental in the creation of our Prevention Education Department.
Our Annual Candlelight Vigil was first held in 1991. It was a joint effort between Chester and Montgomery Counties and eventually it grew and so large that in 1994 we held our own Chester County based event. The Crime Victims’ Memorial in Kardon Park, where the Vigil is held today was built in the early 2000’s. Dr. Mario Spoto lost a family member to homicide and he and the victim’s family came to Peggy with the idea to do the Memorial. It was built in the early 2000’s and Peggy credits Dr. Spoto and the victims’ family with organizing and obtaining most of the funding for the project.
One last highlight, the John Crane Child Advocacy Award and Peggy Gusz Victims’ Advocacy Award. John Crane was as Assistant District Attorney in the Chester County DA’s Office, he was a tireless advocate for victims’ and their families’ and in particular child victims. To honor his work, in November of 1998, CVC, along with the Crane Family announced the establishment of The John J. Crane Allied Professional Award to memorialize his amazing service to child victims and their families and his dedication to his work. John passed in 1998, we lost a dear friend and victims lost a caring, committed ally. In 2018, CVC’s Board of Directors voted to create the Peggy Gusz Victims’ Advocacy Award to recognize Peggy’s amazing contribution to the victim advocacy field.
Peggy said a few times during our conversation that she and Connie used to say jokingly when faced with a new challenge “if we make it ten years we will be lucky”! Well, at 50 years and counting, thank you Peggy for all you’ve done for CVC and for victims’ and their families’ in Chester County.
Please join The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc in celebrating our 50th Anniversary at our Night of Hope Gala on November 9th at the Farmhouse at People’s Light, tickets are on sale now through our website!
The Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, Inc. (CVC) is a nonprofit agency providing free,
immediate, and confidential crisis response and compassionate support to children and adults
impacted by sexual violence and all other crime.
We provide assistance through counseling, advocacy, resources,
and education. The Center fosters community awareness and understanding through its comprehensive outreach and prevention programs. To learn more, visit www.cvcofcc.org