Art of Healing: Expressing creativity helps sexual violence survivors feel seen, heard

Women hope art, stories shared at Women’s Center of Jacksonville inspire other survivors

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The art piece shown above depicts a four-story building with four women -- each a survivor.

While the women are in the same building, their journeys, outcomes and healing don’t all look the same.

Last year, the State Attorney’s Office Special Victims Unit handled over 210 special assault cases, including sexual violence against adults and children.

Unfortunately, there will be more.

For many of the survivors, the Women’s Center of Jacksonville becomes their safe space. The nonprofit advocates for women and provides rape recovery services, including a 24-hour rape crisis hotline (904-721-7273).

The Women’s Center will also display artwork Friday night, during the Surviving to Thriving event celebrating the voices of survivors. The art pieces express the stories of so many survivors.

Survivors like Sarah Blackburn.

“I have been sexually and mentally manipulated my entire life,” Blackburn said.

She spoke at a sexual assault awareness event in early April.

Sarah Blackburn speaks at a sexual assault awareness event in Jacksonville in early April 2023. (WJXT)

She said her story ended in the best-case scenario, but it started at age 6 when she was sexually abused by her father.

“Essentially, I was looked at as a wife or girlfriend and not a child,” Blackburn said. “I remember being a kid. And I had no one. For me, I had no way to make sure that I was heard or to protect me at the very least.”

In a controlled phone call with the Baker County Sheriff’s Office in March 2022, Blackburn’s father admitted to molesting her and taking her virginity. He was arrested.

Blackburn spent the last year testifying in court.

There was no DNA and no witnesses -- just her story.

“It was the most powerful moment because it was essentially a room full of strangers going, ‘We believe you. There was no physical evidence, but we believe you,’” said Hope Timoney, Blackburn’s advocate in Baker County, through the Women’s Center of Jacksonville.

Timoney witnessed Blackburn’s father be sentenced to life in prison, but she said not every case is like Blackburn’s.

Most of them don’t get past police and never make it to court, she said.

“It can be really devastating to survivors, especially when they’ve worked up that courage to come forward,” Timoney said. “It is possible, but that’s something that we as advocates at WCJ go over with them. It’s that no matter what happens, if your case gets dropped, you showed up for yourself.”

Timoney painted a piece at the Women’s Center titled “Bloom where you are.”

Hope Timoney said many survivors find outlets like art because they don’t get -- or can’t get -- justice in court. (WJXT)

She is also a sexual assault survivor, and art is part of her healing process.

Timoney said many survivors find outlets like this because they don’t get -- or can’t get -- justice in court.

Kelly McClendon said she made her own justice by being vulnerable and sharing her experience with others on social media.

We asked her how she got here.

“By facing a very, very dark day. I was sexually assaulted. And I survived something that people said I shouldn’t have survived,” said McClendon. “I was thrown away like trash.”

McClendon was assaulted on her birthday. She had over 100 wounds and was found in a dumpster.

Her case was tried twice -- with no results.

“I did pursue, and I can understand after doing it why a lot of people choose not to,” said McClendon. “Because you’re treated like a criminal. Doing it and pursuing it and not getting justice. That’s the biggest form of rejection in a way.”

Kelly McClendon shares her story of survival from sexual assault. (WJXT)

At the sexual assault awareness event in April, Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters pledged to champion the voices of survivors.

JSO partners with WCJ, and the sheriff said when survivors shed light on what has historically remained in the dark, his department will listen and respond.

“Today, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office trains all patrol officers, not just sex crimes investigators, on trauma-informed victim interviewing and (officers) are also educated on survivor trauma,” Waters said. “I want survivors to know that we will partner with you regardless of your personal circumstances. We treat all survivors with dignity -- that’s what I demand -- and respect.”

The SAO’s Special Victims Unit said survivors come into their office every day -- many of them with diverse backgrounds. Again, they handled over 210 special assault cases just last year. That equates to roughly four reports of sexual violence against adults or children every week.

Martha Lluch said her background is part of why she didn’t report her abuse.

Lluch lives in Jacksonville now, but she was sexually assaulted three times in her life, once in her home country of Venezuela and then twice more in South Florida.

Martha Lluch said her Latin culture is part of why she didn’t report her abuse. (WJXT)

“The culture that I come from, which is Latin culture in Venezuela, this is a very taboo subject, and you don’t talk about sexual abuse,” said Lluch. “But then also, as a young adult, and an immigrant, I was also in situations that led to being assaulted by somebody in power in the place of work.”

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says 1 in 3 Hispanic women have unwanted sexual contact in their life, and 1 in every 4 Black women are raped in their lifetime. Nearly 1 in 2 transgender people have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 1 in 3 adults with intellectual disabilities will face sexual violence in their lifetime.

“Part of the statistics is, once you’ve experienced sexual violence, there is a high likelihood of experiencing it again. So it’s complex,” Lluch said. “So I would say act within your means and what your bandwidth allows you to do.”

That’s just what these women did, even though their outcomes weren’t the same.

“I was a very small person. I didn’t want to cause any kind of commotion. I didn’t want anybody to know. But now I just feel like I’m at a place in my life where I deserve that. And I deserve for people to hear me,” said Blackburn.

Reading a poem she wrote, McClendon said sometimes we have to find beauty in our pain.

“When everything seems brand new and exciting again, when you start to see beauty in all of your broken pieces -- that is living,” McClendon said.

Hope Timoney's painting is called “Bloom where you are.” (WJXT)

Describing her “Bloom where you are” art piece, Timoney said, “Part of why I have her posed the way that she is, is that she’s still very -- trying to hold herself together, still very like maybe not as trusting but still looking up in that, ‘I got this’ and ‘I’ll grow here.’”

These women hope their stories can inspire others.

That’s why Lluch painted her piece, the one at the top of the article that highlights the stories of four women.

“All these women, we’re sharing our stories to again normalize the experience,” Lluch said. “And the common thread amongst the four of their stories is not only experience with sexual violence but is using creativity and art to heal.”

Learn more about the Women’s Center of Jacksonville at

Resources for survivors and their families

  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline, 24 hours, call 1-800-656-4673
  • Women’s Center of Jacksonville’s 24-hour rape crisis hotline: 904-721-7273 or visit
  • Sexual abuse survivors in the Jacksonville area can get resources through Jewish Family & Community Services (JFCS), call 904-448-1933 or email

About the Author:

A Florida-born, Emmy Award winning journalist and proud NC A&T SU grad