Sitting posture perfect on the edge of comfy brown couch with her blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, Marilyn Bray doesn’t look old enough to have done all that she has.
When the outreach and empowerment coordinator at the Crisis Center in north Tampa talks about empowering sexual abuse survivors, jumping out of an airplane two and half miles up to raise awareness, public speaking, Take Back the Night or her upcoming September nuptials, Bray has a warm, open smile that lights up a room.
When asked why she does what she does, Bray, 30, doesn’t shy away from explaining why she works so hard for victims of sexual abuse. Bray, herself, is a two-time survivor.
In 2004, Bray went through the Crisis Center’s Sexual Assault Services program. She continued through Trauma Recovery Services and went through one-on-one and various group counseling, finally joining a rape survivor’s support group.
“These women taught me how to reclaim my life, to learn how to love and trust myself again,” she said. “They taught me how to embrace life with joy, and I never really left.”
What could have easily broken her spirit, taken her down a path of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, instead gave her a calling. Bray began speaking out about her experience locally and nationally and soon took a job at a domestic violence center.
When the opportunity arose in October 2008 to work for the Crisis Center, Bray embraced it. “It seemed like the universe aligned and that door opened.”
Her greatest inspiration in her role at the Crisis Center is found in being able to see survivors transform their lives and again feel comfortable in their own skin.
“In the recovery process, I learned to take the experience and transform it into something powerful, strong and actually quite beautiful. Human resiliency – the human spirit is absolutely amazing,” said Bray. “A step further is being able to take that experience and help others, understanding the suffering that’s uniform. The person’s details with sexual violence might be different, but the post traumatic stress disorders, the triggers, the nightmares, the flashbacks – I can identify with those.”
Her belief is that a person’s purpose on earth is to ease the suffering of others. She uses the experiences that she endured and her personal recovery process to help others.
“There’s a light that comes back into their eyes and you can physically see that transformation take place,” Bray explained. “Somebody realizes that they are not rape, that they are this amazing individual with so more to offer than the victimization that occurred to them. That’s what inspires me. That’s what drives me – that whole metamorphosis, that transformation.”
Michele Wykes, director of sexual assault services at the Crisis Center, said, “Marilyn is amazing. She is self-driven, self-motivated by her personal experience and so incredibly positive. Her mission is to help people succeed.”
As part of her own personal empowerment, Bray joined SOAR’s (Speaking Out About Rape) Operation Freefall. On April 28, Bray and thousands of others take to the sky to jump for the Two-Mile High Stand Against Sexual Assault.
The SOAR says: “Operation Freefall (is) the boldest, highest-altitude, and most daring event organized to put an end to sexual assault.”
Though it took over a year to get brave enough to take her first skydive in 2005, Bray found the courage. This year marks her seventh jump, and Bray is hoping to raise the funds needed so that anyone on Team Crisis Center will have the opportunity to take flight. Proceeds from this skydive will go directly to Sexual Assault Services of the Crisis Center. Last year, Team Crisis Center raised over $5,000 for survivors.
“It transformed my life. For two and half months after (the jump), I just wore this cloak of empowerment. Nobody could touch me – I just jumped out of an airplane. For the first time in my life, I understood what fearless was,” said Bray. “After that I knew I would participate every year to support other survivors so they could get that experience.”
The day following Operation Freefall, Bray will take part in Take Back the Night at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa, an interactive event that creates awareness, empowers survivors and educates the community about sexual violence. Bray hopes to raise $5,000 to support survivors and the Crisis Center.
The event on April 29 includes a men’s pledge, candlelight vigil, silent march and a speak-out to invite survivors and supporters to shatter the silence of sexual violence.
“It is an honor and a privilege to do this work- to be part of the transformation of survivors. If I can be an influence that you’re not alone, it’s not your fault and there’s hope – that’s a gift for me to do that,” said Bray.
When asked how she defined herself in terms of greatness, Bray’s answer was not surprising.
“It’s difficult to define greatness because what I do, I don’t see as great. I see it as what needs to be done and a calling. For me, it’s all about the journey of empowering others and easing the suffering of others,” she said. “It’s what I am supposed to do. Ultimately, it’s embracing the opportunity of what is and allowing others to see the greatness inside themselves.”
To learn more about the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, visit www.crisiscenter.com. For more information or to Team Crisis Center for Operation Freefall, visit http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/lisabraxton/operationfreefall2012/team.