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Healing Power of VOICES : The Tustin-based agency is the only one in Orange County focused solely on the needs of adult incest survivors. In its 10th year, the group honors its founder, who knows the value of speaking out.

July 27, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUSTIN — When Mary Cangelosi met Zela Lancaster for the first time 10 years ago to talk about forming a support group for other adult survivors of incest, the subject was still considered taboo outside the confines of a therapist's office.

The two women, who had been given each other's phone number by a mutual contact, sat across from each other in a coffee shop. Recalls Cangelosi: "We told each other our stories--which is the first time I had told mine to a stranger in a non-professional setting--and we said 'There are other women out there that want this."'

Cangelosi, then a 44-year-old Tustin mother of four, had no idea how right they were.

She and Lancaster, a Westminster resident, held the first meeting of VOICES (Victims of Incest Can Emerge Survivors) in a room at Mariposa Women's Center in Orange in July, 1983. To their surprise, 22 women showed up.

What began a decade ago as a place where incest survivors could share their stories--one of the first such groups in the country--has grown to 17 professionally led, weekly therapy groups attended by 140 women.

That's in addition to four weekly support groups (attended by 40 women who are also in therapy) and quarterly educational programs. Each program draws more than 150 incest survivors, family members and friends for a day of presentations and discussions of child molestation, which is said to thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and shame.

VOICES operates out of a suite of offices in Tustin. It's there, in three comfortable "group rooms," that the women tell their stories of betrayal and personal violation. Strewn on the sofa and chairs like throw pillows are teddy bears, which the women often hold during sessions. The bears are there, Cangelosi says, "to encourage them to get in touch with the little girl that was hurt so bad."

Cangelosi says that so few male adult survivors of incest contact VOICES that it has been difficult to start a therapy group for men. Whenever a man does call, he is referred to private therapy groups.

The nonprofit agency, which offers therapy groups on a sliding scale ranging from $10 to $40 per session and accepts donations for the support group meetings, receives self-referrals and referrals from therapists and public and nonprofit agencies from Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and San Bernardino counties.

VOICES is the only agency in Orange County focused solely on the needs of adult incest survivors. Cangelosi knows of only one other agency, in Texas, that is doing similar work.

"I think the really unique thing about VOICES is that it's an organization that was founded by survivors for survivors that has become a professional agency," says Cangelosi, who has served as director since the beginning.

To celebrate VOICES' 10th anniversary, a $50-per-plate benefit dinner will be held at the Sheraton Hotel in Anaheim on Saturday.

The dinner will honor not only adult incest survivors but Cangelosi, who, as one executive board member puts it, has worked "quietly behind the scenes" for a decade "pulling people together, making this work."

Another board member, Jeanne Haislett, a Tustin clinical psychologist who became VOICES' first therapy group leader nine years ago and who continues to work with the agency, says of Cangelosi:

"She's just an amazingly dedicated woman who wants to make a difference in this world. I think we are successful if we've helped one person, and she's helped thousands of women."

Cangelosi's partner, Lancaster--a mother of two grown children who now lives in Arizona--left VOICES after several years because of family commitments. But, Cangelosi says, "she was a major part in getting this started.

"I feel like there was so much power between the two of us because we were supporting each other and sharing our stories."

*

Seated on a sofa in one of the group rooms recently, Cangelosi said she has no qualms about discussing her story publicly.

She's told it hundreds of times in groups--and many times in public forums--over the past 10 years.

"I feel like we need to talk about this," she said. "A lot of my work in doing VOICES has been letting go of the shame around this. It's been very therapeutic."

Cangelosi grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Huntington Park, the eldest daughter and the second child in a family of five.

"My father began sexually molesting me when I was about 4 or 5, and it continued until I was 13," she said, her voice growing softer. "My mother knew what was happening but felt powerless to stop it."

She declines to say whether her late father molested any of her sisters, but she does say he molested other children. "It was like a big secret--and it's like that in every family where it happens," she said.

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