The hotline (234) 458-1545 was established by a mother and daughter after a robbery.

Rachel Paul needed someone to talk to at 2 a.m.

She had been robbed at gunpoint a few hours earlier while working as a clerk at a local gas station.

Canton Police officers came and took a report but Paul, bruised from the gun that had been jammed into her side, didn’t feel safe at home, located just blocks away.

Things went from bad to worse the next day when Paul was fired from her job. The company said she and the other clerk working that night violated company policy because they had too much money in their cash drawers, a claim that Paul disputes.

The 23-year-old, still reeling from the robbery, didn’t know whom to call. Could she file for workers’ compensation? Unemployment? Could she request extra patrols for around her home?

She called Stark County’s Crisis Hotline, which offered to prescreen her for counseling, which Paul didn't think she could afford. She called the victim/witness division of the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office only to be told that their services are primarily for victims and witnesses involved in an ongoing trial. (The man who robbed the gas station in October never was caught.)

Paul and her mother, Sharan Paul, spent hours on the phone trying to navigate the workers’ compensation and unemployment compensation offices.

“We found out very quickly that in Stark County there’s no one to help victims of violent crime,” said Sharan Paul, who also called on elected leaders from the governor to Canton’s mayor to city council members. “… When I got nowhere with city council, or various state and federal legislators, I realized that I did not need their money, approval or permission to create and operate a 24-hour victim advocacy hotline.”

Beginning Jan. 15, the Pauls will begin operating Holding Hands Hotline for victims of violent crime like Rachel.

Holding Hands

The hotline – 234-458-1545 – is available as a free service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its goal is to help victim’s prioritize their needs and help address those needs.

“Victims of crime may need more help than counseling,” said Sharan Paul, who served in the U.S. Air Force and is seeking her master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Toledo. “They may need help with the loss of a job, loss of health insurance or personal and property safety. Victims need practical and verified contacts that will help them through the fallout of being victimized.”

She said an advocate can help victims even with the smallest details, such as telling them where to find the door to the Canton Police Department after normal business hours.

“It looks like a door to a maintenance closet,” Sharan Paul said. “It may seem petty or small, but those details mean something when you’re panicking and don’t know what to do.”

Rachel Paul said it was important to them that the hotline would be available 24 hours a day.

“Crime does not just happen during regular business hours,” she said.

Both Rachel and Sharan have completed the 33-hour victim advocacy training program through the Ohio Department of Justice. They have other volunteers working through the online training as well.

Sharan Paul also has filed paperwork with the Ohio Secretary of State and Ohio Attorney General’s Office to establish Holding Hands Hotline as a nonprofit organization and is awaiting approval from the IRS for its tax-exempt status.

She has contacted other counties with victim advocacy hotlines and plans to collaborate with county prosecutors.

Jennifer Dave, director of the victim/witness-crimewatch division in the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office, believes the Holding Hands Hotline could be a nice complement to the services her staff provides. Her division provides on-site support to victims in the Alliance, Canton and Massillon municipal courts, juvenile court and the common pleas court.

Dave said funding cuts in 2003 forced the office to eliminate services, so the division no longer reaches out to crime victims and witnesses except in cases involving a homicide. While she’s planning to restore some of those services this year, she said the staff still won’t be able to reach out to every crime victim and they still would be available only during normal business hours.

“I think it would great for a victim anywhere to be able to talk to someone after hours,” she said, noting that 24-hour hotlines already exist in Stark County for rape and domestic violence victims.

Funding the hotline

The Pauls are seeking financial help from the community to fund the hotline. They estimate they need $1,000 to cover the initial start-up costs (mostly the government filing fees and phone lines) and another $1,500 to cover the first year of operating expenses, which include $500 for liability insurance, and $35 a month for two phone lines. Another $95 would be used to print informational brochures and business cards that would be distributed to local law enforcement agencies so officers can hand the information to crime victims.

A GoFundMe page has been established to raise money for the hotline and the Pauls are considering other fundraisers.

“I can’t change what happened to Rachel,” Sharan Paul said. “This is what I can do for her and every other victim that needs help.”

Reach Kelli at 330-580-8339 or kelli.weir@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @kweirREP