Erin Levitas planned to spend her career as a lawyer helping victims of sexual assault and working toward prevention. After attending the Jemicy and St. Timothy’s schools and Wake Forest University, Erin was accepted into University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law with clear goals and a bright path ahead of her.
Tragically, her dreams were cut short. In January 2016, Erin passed away from a rare cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, at 22 years old. She was sick for less than a year.
In her memory, her family created the Erin Levitas Foundation to continue the important work that she planned to do.
Erin was a survivor of sexual assault; she was raped when she was home for a break during college. “Her whole world was turned upside down,” Wende Levitas, Erin’s mother, said. “She couldn’t sleep or eat.”
The experience shaped Erin in profound ways and ignited her passion for change. Erin began taking courses on women’s rights and started a support group on campus, Wende explained. Erin’s sexual assault experience was instrumental in her desire to attend law school and pursue this cause.
The foundation in Erin’s honor supports two programs, one at St. Timothy’s School and one at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
The Erin Michele Levitas ’11 Mind, Body and Soul Empowerment Program at St. Timothy’s School supports girls’ mental, physical, and emotional health and wellness.
Through the The Erin Levitas Initiative for Sexual Assault Prevention at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, law students will go into schools — primarily middle schools — to help students identify, question and reject the destructive ideas and norms that give rise to sexual assault.
“This program allows our law students to engage with one of the biggest problems our nation is facing and make a difference for people in the community,” Donald B. Tobin, professor and dean of the Francis King Carey School of Law, said.
While many other existing programs focus primarily on the college audience, the foundation wants to change norms and behaviors in young people before these issues escalate. The goal is to facilitate a safe and productive conversation around sexual assault in an attempt to change the current culture through early intervention and restorative justice.
“If you start when they are young, you can accomplish a lot,” Leonard Attman, Erin’s grandfather, said. “The goal to change attitudes that drive gender violence. Respect for women and girls can be taught.”
While Erin found her calling before the #MeToo movement, the foundation’s work is especially relevant in today’s national and political climate.
“Our work fits into the national #MeToo movement,” Quince Hopkins, director of the program named for Erin at the University of Maryland law school, said. “Our work is around prevention, disrupting rape culture, and changing norms.”
“The #MeToo movement is empowering people to be willing to speak up when society tries to keep them quiet,” Tobin said. “As we have more people speaking up, we see how pervasive this problem is.”
The Erin Levitas Foundation aims to raise $3 million by December 2021 to continue these programs. Erin’s grandparents, Phyllis L. & Leonard J. Attman, have underwritten the program to get it off the ground and ensure all donations go directly towards the program.
The hope is that these programs can expand to more schools in Maryland and possibly nationwide. It’s all in an effort to honor Erin’s legacy and her commitment to preventing sexual assault and helping victims heal.
“Sexual violence against women is a problem that is so deeply entrenched in our culture,” said Hopkins. “Addressing it requires taking a public health approach. Erin represents so many other survivors. She is a voice and guiding light even though she isn’t with us anymore.”
Erin is remembered as sweet, funny, passionate, positive, optimistic, energetic and deeply caring.
“She was driven and so strong,” Wende said. “She was still helping friends while she was sick. She had a friend trying to prosecute her rapist at Wake Forest University and Erin was still advising her friend until the week before she died. It was important for Erin to help others. That was her.”
For more information or to donate, visit erinlevitas.org.
Anna Lippe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.