Erin Michele Levitas was a 22-year-old woman with a bright mind and far-reaching goals. The Baltimore native had recently been accepted at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and was set to begin in fall 2015.
Marissa Jachman, Erin’s cousin, says she and her cousin were “a lot alike” growing up. “We gravitated to leadership roles. We cared about making change. She was outgoing, bubbly and fun. She also cared a lot about academics and did well academically. She wanted to make a difference in the world.”
Erin wanted to use her law degree to prevent sexual assault, help survivors of sexual violence and make the world a safer place for women. Her family members supported Erin’s goals, but they were not immediately aware of the reasons behind them. It was two years before Erin told her family that she, herself, had been sexually assaulted.
Shortly after accepting her spot in law school, Erin experienced stomach pains that were diagnosed as a rare, aggressive form of cancer. In a matter of months, less than a year after her diagnosis,
Erin lost a bravely fought battle with the disease. She was still 22 years old.
Four-and-a-half years later, her family is still carrying Erin’s cause and ideals forward. The Erin Levitas Foundation, which Jachman helps run and supports through volunteering, aims to prevent sexual assault and harassment using a research-based approach to education for middle schoolers.
Jachman says her large family was already close, but “things like this bring you closer. Every family member jumped on board.” With Jachman’s background in nonprofit management, she was uniquely suited to help launch the foundation.
The foundation has collaborated with Dr. Quince Hopkins and other teaching staff at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law to design an evidence-based curriculum that will help middle school students identify, question and reject destructive ideas that contribute to sexual violence.
The foundation centered its work around early education because Erin “was forward thinking. She wanted to do something to accelerate the change in culture.” It’s also significant, Jachman says, that the foundation turned to the law school Erin planned to attend for help planning the curriculum.
“The curriculum is based on research. The evidence shows this kind of education at this age works,” says Jachman. “We know early education makes a difference, and we frame the discussion in an age-appropriate way. We know empathy is a protective factor against sexual violence and harassment. There’s also an undeniable link in the research between homophobic name-calling and sexual violence.”
To help support the foundation’s work, Jachman tapped into her creativity as well by designing masks and greeting cards.
“We’re a creative family,” Jachman says. “My grandmother had a store in Pikesville called Signatures” that did custom-painting projects. “We’re builders. We don’t ask: ‘Where do we get that?’ We ask: ‘How can we make that?’”
Jachman came up with the idea for masks for a socially distanced fundraiser. “Everyone does T-shirts, but we knew we needed masks this year. We wanted something that communicated our message. The words printed on the mask are our words: ‘listen, change, respect, heal, educate.’ They were chosen for a reason. People are covering their mouths, but with this mask, they can still communicate this message.”
The foundation partnered with Crooked Monkey, a local mid-Atlantic manufacturer, to make the masks. Although the fundraiser is over, the masks are still selling well on the foundation’s website. Jachman says she has more ideas for masks and would love to try new designs. She is also drawing greeting cards, which has been a longtime hobby.
“When COVID hit, it was a release for me,” she says. She liked the idea of making greeting cards because “people were having a hard time connecting, and getting something in the mail, it’s tactile—like a hug you needed.”
Jachman says she and other foundation volunteers will continue to design cards—a holiday line—and messages that “communicate women’s power,”
which was Erin’s message.
“Erin’s life work and purpose were going to center on preventing sexual harassment and assault,” says Jachman. That work continues, even with COVID-19 shutting down schools, as the program is adjusting to be available through a train-the-trainer model and an online version.
“We’re hearing positive feedback from educating kids about harassment and will be working with school staff on how to respond to it. Now that we know these are the steps we can take to prevent gender-based violence in the next generation, we can’t look away and say we didn’t know,” says Jachman. “It makes you think about what a better next generation we’ll have. We will because of Erin.”