Jack Runyan and Armand Harris are volunteers at the Howard County Sexual Assault Center in Columbia. They may be the first men in Maryland to volunteer to victims of sexual assault, according to Sheila Begg, the center's volunteer coordinator.
Runyan and Harris have taken the same training as female counselors but they do not accompany female victims to the hospital.
''Upon request from a nurse or counselor we may go to the hospital to act as a backup for the spouse, friend or father of the victim,'' says Harris.
Most of their help, however, is given as counselors on the center's hotline, 997-3292. Calls are transferred to the home of the counselor on duty. The two men have a female back-up on call should the victim feel uncomfortable talking with a man.
L ''They have never needed to call their back-up,'' says Begg.
Callers may be those who were abused in childhood and are going to therapy and feeling extra stress. Or they may be those who were raped or sexually abused either recently or in the remote past and need counseling.
Both men say they are just listening boards for someone who needs to talk. About three times each month, they take 6- or 12-hour shifts on the hotline, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m or 1 to 7 p.m. When on duty, it isn't unusual for them to have a 3 a.m. call.
''It was something I could do for the community, although I had mixed feelings knowing that a woman who has been sexually assaulted may not want to talk with a man," Runyan says. "But, then again, I felt she might gain some strength in knowing that all men are not alike. That there are gentle and empathetic men.
''Also we can be available to the secondary victim, such as the husband, family or boyfriend by talking with them. My wife Penny is a counselor for the center and is my female back-up,'' says Runyan, 50, who has been a counselor since June and works as a labor economist for the Department of Agriculture. He and his wife have three daughters, ages 16, 20 and 22. They live in Columbia and are active in their church.
Harris, 47, has been a counselor for more than a year. He and his wife Charlotte have a 15-year-old daughter and also live in Columbia. A disability consultant for the Social Security Administration, he says he decided to volunteer at the center because ''it was my daughter, I suppose, and knowing she could be in some jeopardy. She tells me she is proud of me."
''I feel that I'm helping the callers. Some have had a problem from many years ago and are still under stress and need to talk with someone,'' he says.
Callers may or may not want to remain anonymous. Most give first names only.
Runyan sums up the benefits of being a volunteer. ''When a call comes in at 3 a.m., and someone who is having a hard time talks for maybe 30 minutes or more, I am glad to listen. And, then when I call her back in a day or two to find she has been getting on well then I feel well, too. Also, it is good to let a woman know that not every man is out there to hurt or destroy them.''
Begg says that both Harris and Runyan have been invaluable. All of the center's volunteers support its philosophy that "you don't have to face it alone."
''Most of our help is for those in Howard County who live near Howard County General Hospital, which is the only hospital we respond to. We have a very dedicated group which provides crisis counseling and accompaniment through the hospital, police and court procedures for the victims and their families.
"Volunteers are our greatest asset and more are welcome,'' says Begg, who admits to being ''passionate about the help that is needed by a sexual assault victim. It is an awful, desperate period for them and volunteering to help them is a true gift of giving.''
To volunteer to the Howard County Sexual Assault Center, located in Suite 124, Gorman Plaza Building, 8950 Route 108 in Columbia, call Begg at 964-0503.
Ellen Hawks' articles on volunteerism in the Baltimore area appear Tuesdays in The Evening Sun.