PAVSA Exec. Dir. Retires After 20 Years Of Advocating For Victims

PAVSA is the Program For Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault

DULUTH, Minn. – A leading voice for victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse in the Twin Ports has stepped aside into retirement. FOX 21’s Dan Hanger talks with Candy Harshner Winkler on her 20 years at PAVSA.

“You know, I’ve done a lot of different work in my life, but I really consider this my life’s work,” Candy explained.

At 68 years old, Candy is very proud of the work she and her team have accomplished over the past 20 years at PAVSA, also known as the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault.

“I don’t think you can do this work if you don’t feel passionately about it. It’s difficult work. It’s hard to walk people through the level of pain that people go through following sexual violence,” Candy said.

Through Candy’s leadership, she has increased staffing from three to 17 full-time advocates and 13 SANE nurses.

“I can’t think of anything that’s made a bigger difference in a victims life in our community that having access to a SANE nurse,” Candy said.

SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner.

It’s a collaborative with St. Luke’s Hospital and Essentia Health to immediately meet the needs of a victim of sexual assault while collecting valuable evidence for law enforcement and prosecutors.

“It takes what sometimes could be a re-traumatizing experience in terms of an exam following a sexual assault  to, I think, actually becomes an empowering experience and the healing process starts right there,” Candy explained.

“I have such respect for her. And she’s one that she has brought PAVSA to her vision. And I can’t think of anyone more humble than her,” said Mark Rubin, St. Louis County Attorney.

Rubin has worked side by side with Candy for all of her two decades with PAVSA.  He says she’s helped change the way sexual assault cases are handled.

“Candy helped with motivating prosecutors, motivating law enforcement, helping the public become educated. But probably the most important thing — she made sure the advocates under her direction were there for the survivors,” Rubin said.

But while many strides have been made, Candy believes the societal issue of domestic violence and sexual assault still remains high.

“We want to get to the point where something doesn’t happen so they need to heal. You know, so they aren’t facing that in their lives. And until we do that, we have a lot of work to do,” Candy said.

As for candy’s immediate future, she’s just planning to spend as much time on the beach on Park Point this summer as she can, while never forgetting her past with PAVSA that she says has made her the woman she is today.

“I think to everyone, to the victims, to the people I’ve worked with, my coworkers, just a sincere thank you. Thank you for sharing your lives with me. Thank you for sharing your stories with me. Thank you for letting me a part of your life — because it’s been an awesome time,” Candy said.

The transition from Candy to a new executive director has been in the works for the past eight months.

The new leader is Sara Niemi, who has a Masters in mental health counseling.

Niemi also did graduate internship work at a sexual assault center in Minneapolis and spent the past five years at the Duluth Bethel where she supervised programs involving substance abuse.

Niemi starts at PAVSA on Monday, June 11.

For more on PAVSA and its free services, click here.

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