LOS ANGELES — Once a year, an event called Big Sunday Weekend mobilizes volunteers to help at different organizations and schools. One of the places volunteers visited this year is the Program for Torture Victims, a torture treatment center in Los Angeles.
The center helps survivors heal and also provides testimony to help them gain asylum in the United States. From 2010 to 2012, the Program for Torture Victims worked with close to 700 survivors from more than 65 countries.
For 26 years Rossana Perez has spent her free time running in a park near downtown Los Angeles.
“It really clears my thoughts and helps me to release stress,” Perez said.
Much of that stress comes from memories of prison and torture.
“It’s very painful to, you know, talk about things...,” Perez said.
Overcome with emotion, Perez needed a moment to collect herself before continuing.
"A life can be so easily fragmented and one can feel ashamed of...," she said.
Perez came from El Salvador. In the 1980s, during the country's civil war, she was a university student and participated in demonstrations for social reform. She says she was labeled as a communist and was arrested and tortured.
“They push you. They beat you up. They touch you. They say stuff to you. They put things on your body. One day, I remember I was naked. I was with my hands tied [behind my] back, and they put this big metal thing on my head. I was feeling that my body was breaking,” Perez said.
Some torture survivors find their way to Los Angeles, home of the Program for Torture Victims, a center that provides outpatient treatment to those who have been tortured.
Trip Oldfield is the center’s executive director. He says this is the first treatment center of its kind in the United States.
He says many American non-profits, including his, lost funding during the economic downturn. Recent government spending cuts haven't helped.
“We used to get about 80 percent of our funding from the government sources, in 2000 for instance. And now it's down to about 50 percent,” Oldfield said.
The Program for Torture Victims depends on volunteers who donate their money and time. At this year's Big Sunday Weekend, volunteers gave the office a new coat of paint, helped rearrange a room, and put up shelves to create a food and clothing bank.
“Most of our clients flee with nothing. So some clients come in, and they have nothing. They have the clothes on their backs. We want to give them basics,” Oldfield said.
David Levinson is Big Sunday Weekend's founder.
”We introduce many people to organizations they might not have heard about before,” Levinson said.
The program links survivors of torture to lawyers, psychiatrists and experts on the asylum process.
Oldfield says people who are tortured are never the same, but they can heal and lead happy, productive lives. Rossana Perez is working and pursuing a masters degree. She also wants to go for a PhD and help her community and others in need.