From age 8 to 15, Julianna Araujo was sexually abused by her stepfather, Steve Gerohristodoulos, a self-employed home renovation expert whose key words were “let’s cuddle” whenever he was planning to rape her.
Araujo, 27, now a teacher who helps students with autism in Falls Church, Virginia, remembers finally getting the courage to tell her mother about the abuse, only to be interrogated at the kitchen table for hours, then ignored. Her stepfather eventually pled guilty to reduced charges.
“She never took me to the doctor, never did anything about it,” Araujo tells PEOPLE. “She tried to convince me that I was having a dream or a fantasy. She sent me away to live with my biological dad and continued her relationship with Steve, never bringing up what had happened to me again. What hurts the most is that she never defended me. We don’t have a relationship anymore.”
Araujo shared the same story in court, according to copies of transcripts reviewed by PEOPLE. Her mother did not respond to a request for comment.
Determined to rebuild her life, Araujo married when she was 19, went to college and is now raising two children. And she also decided it was important to speak openly about the challenges she faced as a sexual assault survivor.
Her story and six others are now part of a new national multimedia campaign by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), with the support of Getty Images, to encourage calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline and raise awareness for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in April.
“The ‘Survivor Series’ campaign shows the commonality between survivors – from those who survived child sexual abuse to sexual assault on a college campus and intimate partner violence,” Katherine Hull Fliflet, RAINN’s vice president for communications, tells PEOPLE. “It not only encourages victims and survivors to come forward and get help, but also speaks to the general public to help shape their understanding of sexual violence and the unique role individuals can play in preventing and responding to survivors.”
Since the campaign launched, the organization has seen a 115 percent increase in demand for the hotline.
An only child, Araujo says she felt alone, ashamed and afraid to mention what was happening to her to anyone, which is why she waited seven years to tell her mother.
“If I can help even one person feel strong enough to call the hotline and talk about it to start their healing process, then it’s worth it,” she says. “For years, I didn’t speak up because I wanted my mother to be happy. I sacrificed my happiness for hers. I felt as though I had done something wrong.”
Araujo’s nightmare began shortly after her mother, an accountant who had been divorced for three years, met and married Gerohristodoulos, who set up an office in their home.
One afternoon, while her mom was away at work, she came home from school and her stepfather called out to her from the bathroom adjoining his bedroom.
“He was masturbating in the bathroom with the door open,” she tells PEOPLE, “and he asked me to come closer. I avoided looking at him and although the incident was fairly brief, it felt like an eternity. I vividly remember him standing there while sun was streaming through the windows. It’s locked into my memory.”
After that, Gerohristodoulos asked her to “cuddle” with him and stretch out on top of his body. “Then as he grew bolder,” Araujo recalls, “it turned to rape when I was about 10. It was so painful and I was so unhappy and afraid. When I became a teenager, I started running away from home.”
Confronted by her mother about her behavior at age 15, Araujo finally told her about the sexual abuse.
“She asked me, ‘Are you sure? Isn’t this a dream? Is this a fantasy?’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “It got to the point where I finally said, ‘Well, maybe it was.’ ”
Her mother then sent her to live with her biological father and continued her relationship with Gerohristodoulos.
“How can a mother just give up like that?” Araujo asks. “It was very hard on me. It was like I was the one who had done something wrong, so she was sending me away.”
Three years ago, Araujo, who now has two children of her own, Andres, 7, and Victoria, 4, decided to file charges against her stepfather after she realized that a daughter he and her mom had together was about to celebrate her eighth birthday. “I couldn’t let what happened to me happen to her,” she says. “I didn’t want that on my conscience.”
Although the first trial ended with a hung jury, mainly due to her mother “taking a neutral position on the stand,” she says, Araujo agreed to support a plea bargain rather than risk her stepdad walking away after a second trial with no consequences.
Four felony counts of sexual abuse of a minor were dropped to one count and Gerohristodoulos was given a five-year suspended sentence, five years of probation and was required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
“I was really disappointed in the court system and how long it took and how hard I had to fight,” Araujo tells PEOPLE. “So I started speaking out about my story and it became part of my healing process.
“Everywhere I went, people would come up afterwards and tell me, ‘I have a similar story. I’ve never told anyone. What should I do?’ It’s so important that they know they can talk about it. Nobody who survives sexual abuse should have to live in silence and fear.”