Note: This article talks about sexual abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. If these things bother you, please proceed with caution or check out one of our other articles.
This week we’re profiling an amazing woman who I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know during my time here at UNC. Sophie Capshaw-Mack is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill who is taking the initiative to make a change for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through her own non-profit organization, Survivor’s Best Friend!
I grew up in Winston Salem, but I consider Chapel Hill my home because it’s where I was really able to flourish.
Why did you choose your majors and minor?
I chose philosophy as my major because of its difficulty. I wanted something to wrap my mind around that had no clear answers because I was in such a tough spot personally. I was stalked, drugged, kidnapped, and raped (by a UNC student who has since been suspended) during my sophomore year of college, which severely affected my studies. I only have one major for this reason and had to take 1.5 years off of school due to PTSD.
How would you describe your time at UNC?
My time at UNC was bittersweet. Some of my best moments happened there, as well as some of my worst. I do not blame UNC for what happened to me. UNC is a microcosm for society at large, and rape is a very real occurrence that is not spoken about enough because of the stigma. Without UNC, I would not have been able to survive what I did. Not only was I raped at UNC, but I also spoke out about the childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by my father. I was shunned by my entire family after coming out with the news and was forced to figure out how to fend for myself during an already impossible time. Around this time, I was also dealing with the rape case, working alongside the Chapel Hill Police Department and Orange County District Attorney’s Office. UNC provided me with indispensable resources including emergency financial support, free counseling, and a network of faculty and staff who regularly checked in on me. I was able to persevere through the darkest moments of my life, in part, because UNC shone a light on my journey of healing.
Was graduate school always an option for you? How did you decide where to go?
I’m currently completing a post-baccalaureate program in International Affairs at Columbia University. The program takes place over the summers, so at the moment I’m living in DC where I’m growing Survivor’s Best Friend and interning at Women for Women International. I’m applying to Master’s Programs this January. I would like to end up in New York because of the international opportunities there.
We recently saw that you started a non-profit organization called Survivors Best Friend. Was this always something you had in mind or was it something that came about rather quickly?
Survivor’s Best Friend is something that I have inadvertently been working on for a while now. The idea crystallized into what it is today on a road trip to NYC over the summer when I realized the single biggest impact in my life was my dog Biscuit. He stood by me after the rape and amidst the childhood sexual abuse scandal. He kept me safe and helped me feel loved and cared for during my most vulnerable period when I wasn’t believed. SBF materialized because I wanted other survivors to be able to experience the same support and affection I did that only an animal could provide. There were no existing organizations that united shelter animals with survivors of sexual assault and/or domestic violence, so I jumped at the opportunity to create one of my own.
Did you have any fear or doubts about starting Survivors Best Friends?
I was fearful that it wouldn’t work out and would just be an unrealized dream. I received a lot of support and encouragement from the beginning though, which helped ease my anxiety. I don’t really have any fears or doubts now. My main concern is with funding because as a nonprofit, SBF completely relies on donations and grants for funding. We have a lot of survivors to help and animals to adopt, so it can get expensive pretty quickly.
What advice or tips would you give to other women, interested in starting a non-profit?
Believe in yourself! It’s difficult to start a nonprofit, but with dedication and hard work you’ll be fine. Make sure to stay organized, and have a clear mission statement from the beginning. That way you’ll never get off track because you can stay true to your organization’s mission.
What’s your vision for the organization? Where do you see it going?
As the only nonprofit of its kind, SBF is already a leader in a field where philanthropy, animal welfare, and survivor empowerment overlap. I see SBF functioning as the go-to organization for survivors looking for animal companions. Not only do we pay for the complete adoption cost for a shelter dog or cat of a survivor’s choosing, but we also fund the amount for the animal to become a registered Emotional Support Animal. We are also about to launch a new program where volunteers can write handwritten letters that we deliver to survivors.
In the future, I see SBF helping thousands of survivors across the nation. We already have helped a sexual assault survivor in Wisconsin adopt a puppy and get him certified as an ESA. We also have SBF-University Chapters in NC, DC, and Wisconsin. We would like to begin more chapters like these at college campuses across the country.
You’ve openly talked about your experiences with abuse. What coping methods or tools have you found that helped you get to a place where you can be so publicly open and share your story with others?
I think I’m able to talk about what I experienced because I was silenced for so long. Growing up, I felt like I had a huge secret. It was so heavy. I stayed silent for thirteen years of my life. After the rape, I decided to face everything at once. I decided that my abusers would neither rob me of my voice nor of my agency. I speak out because so few people do. I want to help pave the way for others to share their stories.
What advice would you give to others who have similar experiences but aren’t sure how to cope?
I would suggest adopting a dog or cat through Survivor’s Best Friend! Biscuit saved my life when no one else was there. Pets can truly make a world of difference. I would also strongly recommend therapy and a good support system of friends and/or family. I would say that it really does get better with time. I’m on medication to manage my PTSD, and that has helped me tremendously. Don’t be afraid to try new coping strategies until you find what works!