Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
On October 20, I along with 13 others I attended the Champions for Change event in Washington D.C. for advocates, educators, and activists against domestic violence. It was humbling to take part in the discussion and round table event with so many individuals who devoted their careers to this issue, in many cases longer than I have been alive.
My name is Nicole DeSario; I am 16 years old, and I a junior at Montgomery High School in Skillman, New Jersey. I am a student advocate and educator in teen relationship abuse awareness and prevention.
I began working diligently for the cause over a year ago; however, I was motivated largely by personal experience. This I found to be a common theme amongst the panel. As one person so poignantly remarked, “scratch an advocate, find a survivor”. Regardless of the impetus, we all dedicated our time and effort because of a desire to end some aspect of domestic violence.
My focus has been to teach teens about dating abuse by using methods they easily relate to such as music, video and interactive theatrical skits. To that end, I began by hosting a workshop at a local middle school in February during New Jersey’s first “Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention” month. The program was a great success and well received by the school administration and students. Concomitantly, I found a bill in the NJ Assembly and Senate that had been introduced months before, but was sitting in subcommittee. This bill, A2920/S2114, directs that grades 7-12 throughout New Jersey have “Safe Dating” education incorporated into their health curriculum. I championed the bill by asking local representatives for support and then conducted a letter writing and petition signing campaign. After several months of work, I was elated the bill was passed by both houses in late March and signed into law May 5 by Governor Christie.
Following the passage of law, I directed my efforts towards the creation of a sustainable safe dating program in my high school to address the new mandate. Components of my program are a combination of elements of clubs I am involved in. One is the “Actors’ Guild”, the other the “Gay-Straight Alliance” (GSA). Combining the theatrical component of the Actors’ Guild, the elements of confidentiality and tolerance from the GSA, and my desire to create a “By Students, For Students” resource for teen abuse, I created “MASK Theater”. MASK stands for “Montgomery Advocates for Solidarity and Kindness.”
After contacting school administrators about my interest in creating a new club, finding an advisor, writing by-laws, recruiting student members, coordinating summer training classes for MASK members on relationship abuse education, and applying for and receiving funding from the ANNpower Vital Voices Initiative, we are now a recognized legitimate club at our school. We have already performed for the school during Violence Prevention Week through the peer education program. The momentum continues and our membership is growing. My hope that MASK would be a recognized and sustainable entity seems to now be a reality.
MASK bases presentations on anonymous submissions by teens who share their stories on our blog about an abusive relationship they have been involved in or witnessed. We adapt these stories into short skits and perform for small groups of students. We lead informal discussions in an effort to increase intimacy and trust with our target audience. We incorporate media and music specifically geared to teens in an effort to make the presentations relevant and current.
Our goal is to implement our program into other schools so that students anywhere could be offered a resource similar to MASK. A local domestic abuse prevention agency has been incredibly supportive of MASK and has committed to continue to assist us in the future. With their help, we plan to create a non-profit specifically geared for teens in the larger community.
Special thanks to the administration of Montgomery High School, the members MASK, and the Resource Center of Somerset for their support. The administration, particularly Mr. Damien Pappa, Vice Principal; Mr. Keith Glock, Guidance Counselor; and Ms. Jennifer Waiter, MASK Advisor, were all instrumental in establishing us as a group. Tony Winchatz, Director of Community Affairs at the Resource Center of Somerset is our educator and mentor. Most importantly, the student members of MASK have impressed me with their commitment, creativity and enthusiasm. I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by such a wonderful group of supportive team members. Without them, MASK would not be what it is, and because of them, I know MASK will continue long after I graduate.
This year, I became a member of the National Youth Advisory Board for the combined Loveisrespect.org and Break the Cycle organizations. Through the NYAB, I have connections with some of the most dedicated youth in the country in this field. In fact, several members of the NYAB surprised me by coming to the Champions of Change event, something I had certainly not expected. Additionally, many others influenced me with support and feedback during my journey. Sharon Zucker, Violence Prevention Education Coordinator at Rutgers University; Liz Hornbach, Girl Award Program Specialist, GSHNJ and last but not least, my mom. She has been the greatest support in my life, giving me the confidence and courage to move forward even when things seemed overwhelmingly difficult. I learned from her how to be a survivor, to not let the past define the future, how to truly believe in my own self worth and how important it is to have a ‘safe place’ when one is truly in need.
As with many things in life, inspiration comes when you least expect it. Just a few weeks ago, I was a guest speaker at the 23rd Candlelight Vigil in Somerset County. This annual event commemorates lives lost to domestic violence in our local community. Most in attendance had lost a loved one to domestic violence or been a victim themselves. I shared how I became involved in teen relationship abuse education with those present. Afterwards, several people thanked me and expressed why my work was so significant to them. Some stated how they wished there was a program like mine when they were younger. Others were hopeful that teens involved in MASK would be less likely to fall victim to domestic violence as they had been. All of those supporters gave me a renewed spirit to keep working toward ending the violence. Together with the rest of the 13 Champions, and others that do this work across the country, we collectively say this must end. To quote a friend, 1 is 2 many.
Nicole DeSario is a junior at Montgomery High School in Skillman, New Jersey and a student advocate in teen relationship abuse awareness and prevention.