They were verbally abused, beaten and in fear for their lives, but members of Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships (SOAR), a grassroots taskforce of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV), haven’t lost the fight.
Instead of hiding, domestic violence survivors lend their voices to cultivate and support efforts extending beyond crisis management to attack the root causes of the epidemic.
In early 2011, the Rhode Island Judiciary released a report listing the number of domestic violence cases recorded in the state for 2010. It revealed Warwick had 481 cases, Cranston had 467 and Johnston had 475. There were 8,408 cases reported statewide.
SOAR, which was founded by domestic violence survivors in 1989, is not a support group or shelter. Rather, it’s a group of women who have survived domestic violence and now are helping other survivors. They work on changing laws to better protect women dealing with abusive relationships and visit schools to educate children about the issue.
Most recently, they starred in a play, “Behind Closed Doors,” which consisted of stories from 15 survivors. It debuted Dec. 10 at Trinity Repertory Company's Dowling Theater, as well as during a special preview at the University of Rhode Island on Dec. 7.
For their efforts, the Mary Byron Project – Fostering Innovations and Strategies to End Domestic Violence, selected SOAR, along with three other organizations, to receive Celebrating Solutions awards. These groups are recognized for non-traditional methods that have promise in breaking the cycle of domestic violence. Local and national experts help select programs they believe serve as models for the nation. Each award includes a $10,000 cash prize.
SOAR Coordinator Carmen Recalde-Russo said the money will fund outreach presentations. She thinks one of the main reasons SOAR received the award is the fact that survivors are leading the movement.
The group’s goal, said Recalde-Russo, is to break the silence among women.
“For some reason, they all adopted the silence,” she said. “People just don’t talk about it. They feel like they are at fault, and they are ashamed. They think, ‘There’s something wrong about me.’ But we don’t want it to be a secret anymore because that’s the only way we can eliminate it.”
One way they aim to do that is through the play, which Recalde-Russo said was “very successful.” She said people have asked for more performances and SOAR is working on scheduling additional shows.
For many of the women featured in the play, including SOAR member Kathy McCormick, the performance allowed them to share their stories for the first time. McCormick was in an abusive relationship about 30 years ago in which she was stalked and assaulted on numerous occasions. She hopes her voice will help other victims.
“You can get through this and there are people that can help you,” McCormick said. “Today, I’m living the way I was meant to live. I’ve been able to move on, get married and have another family, get my degree and be happy.”
One of her stories in the play explains a situation in which she was house sitting for a friend. Her abuser hunted her down, broke in and put a knife to her throat.
“He held me there for six hours,” McCormick said. “He destroyed everything in her apartment. The humiliation was unbelievable because I had to explain to her what happened when she was away. I wasn’t sure I was going to get out of that apartment alive. I finally had to sneak out a fire escape.”
Another story detailed an instance in which he damaged her vehicle so she couldn’t drive. As a result, she had to take the bus, and to her horror, he appeared on the bus on her way home. He wouldn’t get off the bus without her, and the driver wouldn’t leave unless he got off. Out of fear that he would harm others, she exited the bus.
“He dragged me by the hair in the middle of the city, and nobody helped,” she said. “I was crying and asking for help but people didn’t want to get involved. That’s one of the messages in the play. You need to step in. He drove me around until 2 a.m. smacking me. I thought I was going to die.”
In another story, the abuser slammed her into a car door when she was eight months pregnant, and tried to start a fire in her room. Aside from physical abuse, her abuser stalked her continuously, showing up wherever she went, including her parents’ home, where she sought refuge.
“I was afraid for years because I was stalked for years,” McCormick said. “He wanted to spend every minute of every day with me. If I wanted to go out with my friends, it was a problem. And the phone calls were constant. I feared for my son, [who is now 28] and I feared for me.”
McCormick’s abuser today is in jail for rape and conspiracy to commit murder, as he assaulted another woman. He was sentenced to serve 50 years.
McCormick said it’s important for women and men alike to be aware of warning signs that they are dating an abuser. Red flags include controlling behavior, the need for constant contact and verbal abuse. She also stressed the importance of seeking help if you are in an abusive relationship.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help,” she said. “That’s part of the message we need to get out there.”
She is forever grateful to her family for their support through the years, including her parents, her children and her husband of 15 years. Her oldest son knew the situation as a child, but they didn’t speak of it other than one occasion.
“When he was 10, he said to me, ‘He used to hurt you, didn’t he?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘That’s all I need to know.’”
He, along with McCormick’s husband, learned more about the details when they attended the play. She asked her son if he felt comfortable with her sharing her story before agreeing to participate.
“He said, ‘If you think it will help, you should do it,’” said McCormick, who noted that in the future she hopes to visit various places in the community to talk about her experience. “The more I told my story, the more empowered I felt. [Each of the women in the play] survived the same situation, and it was very cathartic. It was emotional, but it made me realize I want to do more. Even though it’s not a support group, this process was very healing for a lot of us.”
Other 2012 recipients include: Asian Women's Center of San Francisco, Calif.; The Global Center for Women & Justice at Vanguard University (Stop the Violence Campaign) of Costa Mesa, Calif.; and Day One New York of New York, N.Y.
"These are four wonderful organizations that are working tirelessly to put an end to domestic violence," said Marcia Roth, executive director of the Mary Byron Project. "The Mary Byron Project is proud to recognize them for the great work they are doing."
Learn more at www.marybyronproject.org. For more information about SOAR, visit soarinri.org.
If you are in an abusive relationship, contact RICADV via their 24-hour help line at 1-800-494-8100.