How friends turned a heartbreaking loss into hope for others, at The Healing Center

Emily's Room 8

A picture of Emily sits on a tiny desk in Emily’s Room at The Healing Center.

It’s the kind of loss you never truly recover from, your heart mends but it’s never the same. Loved ones of Emily Willegal have struggled to make sense of her death since 2003. Though it’s something they will never understand, they find strength and wisdom in celebrating Emily’s life.

Emily was just 24-years-old when she was sexually assaulted and murdered by a complete stranger on Milwaukee’s East side. It was January of 2003 and the crime left the entire city in shock. Though it has now been 12 years since Emily was taken from them, friends and family are making sure her spirit is remembered every single day.

Emily was an employee of Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Milwaukee. Staff and friends there have organized many fundraisers over the years in her name. From the beginning, Emily’s mother insisted the donations go to an organization providing help for male and female survivors of assault. That’s why they chose The Healing Center, a Well Community program of Aurora Health Care. Since 2003, Rock Bottom Brewery has donated around $56,000 to The Healing Center. This money has provided for free counseling and advocacy services to adult survivors of sexual trauma.

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One of Emily’s best friends, Tricia Damm, was studying to get her Master’s degree in counseling at the time of her death. Tricia now works as a Sexual Assault Counselor at The Healing Center. “I would never have thought I would be doing this work. I went into counseling but with the specialty of eating disorders. That was part of my healing process. I couldn’t help Emily, but I can help others that have gone through these experiences,” Tricia says.

Rock Bottom held a fundraiser in 2013 on the 10th anniversary of Emily’s death. A portion of the proceeds from that event went to decorating and naming an individual counseling room at The Healing Center. There are traces of Emily’s magnetic spirit all over the space. Tricia asked friends on Facebook to describe Emily in one word; those words were painted onto a wooden plate and placed on the shelf next to a circle of friends sculpture. The colors of the room are based on the colors of gerbera daisies, which were Emily’s favorite flowers. And one of Emily’s signature sayings, “Smiles are free, don’t save them!” is painted on the wall.

“I love the room, I feel her in so many ways. I wanted to capture her spirit. Emily wouldn’t have wanted to be remembered because of how she died. She deserves to be remembered because of how she lived,” Tricia explains. Staff at The Healing Center now say Emily’s room is a real favorite among their clients.d42610_Denim_Day_FB_1200x1200

Aurora Health Care Foundation would like to thank Rock Bottom Brewery for their support of The Healing Center over the years. You, too, can support survivors of abuse by wearing denim on Denim Day and making a gift. Go to to learn how.

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