NORRISTOWN – Linda VanOcker doesn’t know the name of the 19-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted at Norristown Farm Park on August 1st.
Wednesday night marked her first time at the Farm Park.
What connects VanOcker to the victim and the 690-acre location is her own history of teenage rape and the journey to overcome its effects.
VanOcker was raped at a party when she was 17-years-old and did not have the support she needed. She says she “shut down” and attempted suicide twice.
“My spirit was destroyed. I went down a slippery slope,” explained Van Ocker, a Berwyn resident. “I buried it then I coped with it. My coping was very dark. For me it was a spiritual journey. Today, I’m grateful for my pain and my struggles because from that grew my strength, courage and my voice.”
Organized on Facebook by Van Ocker, Kelly Volpi, and Ryan Graham, leader of the Norristown Running Club, the page gained what organizers called a phenomenal reaction. The Facebook page states, “our running community stands in solidarity with this woman, we are raising our voice, we are showing up, and we are speaking out in order to #stoptheviolence.
“We are working together with the same goal even though we may never know her name,” Van Ocker said referring to the rape victim. “She has a name. We want to show her we care, she is important, she matters, she’s loved, and we got her back.”
The Solidarity Run organizers partnered with the Victim Services Center of Montgomery County as the beneficiary of the run. Unlike other runs, there were no fees or registration required. Organizers asked for donations to Victim Services. As the only rape crisis center for Montgomery County, they also help victims of other violent crimes. Victim Services was on-site Wednesday night providing support, educational resources, and programming information.
“We try to shed light on the issue of sexual assault and it’s great our community is responding and reclaiming the park. It’s a very powerful message,” said Jessica Rice, Community Education Program Supervisor. “What we need to do instead of reducing our risk is try to change attitudes and beliefs that promote violence.”
“It took me forty years to heal. I’m thrilled Victim Services is here,” said VanOcker.
Norristown Farm Park, which sits in parts of East Norriton, West Norriton and Norristown, is a regular spot for walkers, families, people with pets, bike riders, and avid runners like Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence.
“The only thing more horrible than the assault would be if it drove people away from this oasis,” said Lawrence who participated in the run. “I was overwhelmed when I saw the amount of people here. This was grassroots. It shows the community has really rallied and we are going to keep our park.”
Men and women of a wide range of ages took part in either the three-mile run or one-mile walk. Some runners wore shirts from their respective running clubs or teal in recognition of sexual assault awareness.
Like many, Phoenixville’s Heather Vallino and Bridgeport’s Samantha Moyer were upset when they heard about the assault and wanted to show support. Vallino and her two daughters, Sofie, 6 and Annie, 5, did the one-mile walk.
“I want my daughters to know there is a community out there who supports you and you can call on people when you need help,” said Vallino.
Moyer and her two sons, Xavier, 12 and Fenix, 6 walk in the park regularly but tonight’s visit had a different purpose.
“I want them to see these things happen and it isn’t always gender specific but no matter what it is, as a young man, it’s your job to be there to support women in these circumstances,” said Moyer. “As young men, growing up in today’s society they should help defend women’s rights.”