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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Living

Dawn Helmrich speaks at a conference in 2013. (PHOTO: shutterstock.com )

Milwaukee recognizes sexual abuse survivors with Denim Day


Denim Day is an international movement that encourages people to wear jeans to raise awareness about sexual assault.

In Milwaukee, an event called Hope Shining Blue will honor Denim Day on Wednesday, April 23 at the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St.

It will offer an evening of men's and women's denim runway fashion along with shopping, socializing and more. Five sexual assault survivors will walk the runway in denim clothing created by a local designer.

The event is a fundraiser for the Healing Center.

Single tickets for Hope Shining Blue are sold out. People can also support the effort by bidding through an online auction that will begin on April 9.

During the event, Milwaukee's Dawn Helmrich will receive the 2014 Thrive Award for her extraordinary commitment to Denim Day.

In 2010, Helmrich, who was raped years prior, attended a sexual assault conference in California where she learned about Denim Day and decided she wanted to introduce the effort to Milwaukee.

Denim Day was started after a woman in Italy was raped by her driving instructor. The man was originally convicted, but later a judge overturned the conviction because it was decided the victim was wearing tight jeans and therefore, because she most likely had to assist in the removal of the pants, she gave consent to the rape.

Outraged, women started showing up at the Italian parliament wearing tight jeans in protest and Denim Day emerged. Today, campuses hold special events and offices encourage their employees to wear jeans on the third Wednesday of April in solidarity with sexual abuse survivors.

Helmrich, who works at the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, says she spent years trying to heal from what happened 22 years ago. While walking from work to a friend's 25th birthday party, she was raped by three young men who also robbed and shot at her.

They left her in an alley, naked, and she ran for help at a house that she chose because there were flowered curtains in the window and she thought, hopefully, a woman lived there.

It turned out a woman did live in the home and she gave Helmrich a robe, a glass of water and called 911.

Married just four months before the assault, Helmrich says the horrific event destroyed her marriage and her life for many years.

"I lost every friend I had except one – she is my champion and has stuck by me through everything and I love her dearly," she says. "I was a hot mess for a long time, but also, most people can't handle that you're not, and never will be, the same person you were before it happened."

After years of denial, destructive behavior and finally, therapy, Helmrich was able to begin the never-ending healing process.

Today, she is remarried to a supportive man and has two children, a boy and a girl. When she first learned she was pregnant, Helmrich was terrified by the fact she would have to tell her child what happened to her someday.

A friend told her that she would tell her children "when the time was right." Indeed, this is what happened.

When her daughter was 10 (she is 13 now), they were in a crowd of people at an event on the anniversary of the assault and Helmrich started having a panic attack. It was the first time her daughter saw her have a panic attack, but instinctively she knew what to do. She led her mother to an open space beyond the crowd.

"When we got in the car to go home she said, 'Mom, do you want to tell me what happened to you?' She didn't know, but she knew," says Helmrich.

Helmrich went on to tell a brief, non-graphic version of the attack and waited for her daughter to ask questions. Over the years, she – and her brother – have heard much of the story but instead of being angry or afraid, they have rallied behind her in support.

Helmrich's daughter and her friends, who are in middle school, created a special video for Denim Day in support of sexual abuse victims.

Helmrich says there is a lot of misunderstanding around sexual assault, including around the length of time it takes for someone to heal. She says she spent four years of her life after the attack living a destructive lifestyle and then another five years trying to forget about it and immersed herself in school, family and work.

Finally, she received counseling from the Healing Center, an organization that she will forever appreciate.

"Everyone's journey is different," she says. "Mine took a long time before I could even function. The Healing Center helped me in so many ways."

Today, Helmrich still struggles. She will occasionally have nightmares and panic attacks. She has to face doors when sitting in a restaurant and her children know they cannot approach her from the behind or make sudden noises. Toy guns of any kind, including water guns, are not allowed in her home.

Also, Helmrich says she cannot pump gas alone, something that she doesn't really understand considering her attack did not take place at or near a gas station.

"I'm really not sure why that's an unsure, threatening place for me, but it is," she says.

Helmrich says she had a highpoint in her healing process when she realized she wanted to help other sexual abuse victims and that it wasn't just about her experience anymore. Denim Day Milwaukee helps her reach out to other sexual abuse survivors.

"I am more OK than I ever thought I would be," she says. "It's been a really long journey to get here."


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