By B.C. Manion
The young women stood in a circle, outside in the parking lot, tossing soft, colorful balls at one another.
They called out each other’s names as part of an icebreaker aimed at helping them learn each other’s names during the first of 10 sessions this summer at the Sunrise Domestic and Sexual Violence Center’s administrative office in Dade City.
The teenagers are taking part in a Summer Youth Leadership Initiative aimed at helping them to develop skills to combat sexual violence, domestic violence, gender discrimination and other forms of abuse.
The group will meet weekly in three-hour sessions to devise a campaign to help raise community awareness about these social problems and to try to enlist others in a quest to create a community where all people are valued, honored and respected.
Jackie Bavin, the primary prevention coordinator for the center, is leading the sessions. She said one hour will be devoted to teaching leadership skills, an hour will go to education and the third hour will be devoted to creating a community project to raise awareness about these issues.
Bavin said she’s trying to help these youths develop leadership skills so they can be “active bystanders.”
“One of the things that we know is that when we stand up for other people, when people know how to handle situations — violent situations, bullying, — it tends to stop them.
“Youths don’t have those skills. A lot of adults don’t have those skills,” Bavin said.
By educating these youths about violence, domestic violence and other forms of abuse and by helping them to develop leadership skills, the hope is that they know how to respond when any of these issues touch their lives, or the lives of people they know.
“Leaders naturally know when to step in, or how to handle situations,” Bavin said.
They have the skills to assess situations and to know where to turn if a situation is beyond their control, she said.
The program will cover a number of topics, Bavin said. It will cover healthy relationships and discuss the topic of sexual abuse within relationships, she said.
Statistics show that one in three teenagers will experience dating violence in some form, physical, emotional, sexual or emotional, Bavin said.
“We’re covering sexual harassment. We’re covering gender issues,” she said. And the class includes learning how to discern the messages that often are conveyed through the media, such as what roles men and women “are supposed to play,” she said.
Schools have a limited time to deal with these kinds of issues because they’re focused on academics, said Bavin, who has given talks at schools about preventing bullying and other types of violence.
It’s impossible to deliver a comprehensive message, though.
“Some of the schools, we get 30 minutes. Some of the schools, we get 50 minutes,” she said. There also are issues with scheduling and transportation conflicts.
This program gives students a much better opportunity to learn about the issues and be involved in raising community awareness to combat the problems. The youths taking part chose to do so, Bavin said.
Besides her presentations, Bavin will bring in community leaders to share their knowledge with the youths.
She thinks it is important for both the youths and adults in leadership roles to learn to work with each other and develop mutual respect.
Araceli Tijerina, of Dade City, is pleased that her daughter, Tati, has the opportunity to attend the program.
“I think it is a good idea for them to have a program like this,” she said. “It helps them to distinguish if they are ever in a violent relationship. It’s good education.”
Another parent, Janet Acevedo, of Lacoochee, agreed: “I think it’s a great thing.”
Janice Acevedo, 14, said she’s glad to be able to earn community service hours for participating in the leadership training.
“I wanted to do something over the summer, rather than staying at home,” she said.
Tati Tijerina, 12, said she thinks the program will give her better skills to tackle issues if they arise. “If I ever have a problem, I would know what to do.”
In addition to Bavin, others from the Sunrise Center who are involved in the project are Laura Farley, a program assistant and Christina Bates, social change community coordinator.
Dade City teens Nia Henderson and Christina Williams, both 17, and Michele Cruz, 15, also are glad to be part of the program, they said.
They tossed out plenty of ideas when Bavin quizzed the group about the types of violence and talked about potential causes.
Dakota Yonkey, 17, of San Antonio, said she hopes one day to make a true difference.
“I want to incorporate horses with the rehabilitation of children who have been abused,” she said.
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