A call to arms

Published 10:49 pm Thursday, October 7, 2010

State Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, who is running for Senate, was keynote speaker for the DASAS Cass County Candlelight Vigil Thursday night on Main Street. Listening is Mistress of Ceremonies Leigh Feldman, Probate Court referee. (The Daily News/John Eby)

State Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, who is running for Senate, was keynote speaker for the DASAS Cass County Candlelight Vigil Thursday night on Main Street. Listening is Mistress of Ceremonies Leigh Feldman, Probate Court referee. (The Daily News/John Eby)


Dowagiac Daily News

Confront it or condone it.

That’s what state Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, told Cass County’s Candelight Vigil sponsored Thursday night by Domestic and Sexual Abuse Services (DASAS) at ACTION Ministry Center.

“Broken Wing” may be used for specific ministries, said the Rev. John Kasper, pastor of First United Methodist Church.

The angel on a pedestal in front of the former Groner Funeral Home at 301 Main St. “recognizes we are here as broken people ourselves to minister to broken people. This vigil is very appropriate as one of our very first activities. That angel is in a shop being repaired, but not quite, so it’s broken instead of broken off.”

DASAS serves Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties’ survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their families, offering free, confidential support to people such as Tara, who provided the perspective of someone who escaped an abusive marriage and the drugs and alcohol the mother of three turned to as a coping mechanism to deaden her pain.

Mary Lynn Falbe, DASAS executive director, said, “If we are to reduce domestic violence, we must continue to raise awareness and understanding of the problem. We need to educate our friends, families, churches, communities and schools about prevention. That’s a hard task because domestic violence is a personal, intimate topic that is not discussed at social gatherings or even at church because many still view domestic violence as a ‘dirty little secret.’ ”

“To first understand what the challenges are,” Proos said from the steps of ACTION (All Churches Together in One Network), “you have to understand the depth of the challenge itself. You can’t answer the question if you don’t first understand what you’re trying to face. Each of you bring your own perspective, which we don’t dismiss, but honor and understand that it is yours for whatever reason that brings you here tonight to hold a candle in remembrance.”

Proos said more than 103,000 cases of domestic violence affected Michigan families just in 2009.

Five hundred and 11 of those occurred in Cass County.

“While statistics are easy to look at, each of those we recite has a name, a face, a family and an impact on our community, which isn’t as safe. A community which isn’t as prosperous, a community which can’t go to work comfortably and a community which has children who have seen something that nobody should ever seen,” Proos said. “All of those sorts of things cannot be summed up in statistics, but in each of those stories” whose names fill five pages since 1971, but which haven’t been added to since February 2008.

“Domestic violence, sadly, is the leading cause of injury of women between ages 15 and 44 in the United States,” said Proos, who is married and the father of three children.

He was elected to the Michigan House in November 2004.

“Think about that for a moment. Grasp what that human toll is. A human toll that drives us here today to remember the loss and to embrace the survivors. It is because there are survivors that we stand here today to talk about ways to fix our community through action networks, through remembrances and through each and every one of us making it a personal mission in our lives to make a difference so that the very long sheet of names listed as victims, and the many, many folks behind them who face the pain of loss and the pain of a future without those loved ones.”

Proos asked, “What difference does one pebble make in the ocean?”

He answered, “One pebble makes a ripple that goes on forever and impacts that ocean. Law enforcement responds to it daily, then they have to go home to their own families having seen and heard and witnessed the pain. Thank them and honor them for taking that home with them every day.”

Instead of regarding the candlelight vigil solely as a memorial to remember victims and to feel sad, the lawmaker suggested, “Take it as a challenge to make a difference in our community. By having a remembrance like this, we find ways to let somebody else know. Grow tonight’s experience by one and we’ll have 150 to 200 new people aware of this challenge and aware of the signs of domestic abuse. Aware to know that not to confront is to condone. If you’re not aware of the signs and you don’t confront the situation, even if you can’t do it yourself, talk to someone who might have the capacity. But to look the other way is to condone the actions you know are happening. This remembrance is a call to arms to make domestic violence known in our community and then, with our help, unknown in our community. A call to the arms that wrap around people in loving care. Arms that stand together arm in arm to make a difference. It only happens if we as members of this community seek to do so. On behalf of my very good friends, state Rep. Sharon Tyler (of Niles), Sen. Ron Jelinek (of Three Oaks) and Rep. Matt Lori (of Constantine), it’s my great pleasure to spend this evening with you, remembering and seeking to make a difference.”

“Purple is the color of remembrance,” the 79th District (northern Berrien County) lawmaker said of programs bearing the theme, “Mourn. Celebrate. Connect,” and “burgundy is the color of the Harley Davidson (motorcycle) which went by” on the Main Street boulevard, sometimes drowning out speakers’ comments with the assistance of a woman who chatted on her cell phone throughout the somber service to the point several urged Undersheriff Rick Behnke to arrest her.

About 50 people attended the vigil, plus the members of Jeff Robinson’s Union High School choir.

Tara fell “into what I thought was love” at 15 with her husband. “I was young and naive and thought he would love and protect me. I tried my hardest to please him and make him happy, but I never could. I even tried to stand up for myself, but that never worked, either. He wouldn’t listen, so discussions ended in physical violence. I was beaten, cussed at and degraded, even in front of others, and forced to have sex. I hated my life and wanted to die” except for their three children.

“I wondered what was wrong with me,” she said. “Why couldn’t I make this man love me like he said he does? I felt worthless and hopeless. Who else would want me or love me? I sank into a horrible depression, my anxiety out of control. My anxiety rubbed off on my children — especially when it was time for their father to come home. Everybody tried to be perfect to not upset him, but it didn’t matter because nothing we did was ever good enough and it didn’t take much to set him off.”

Tara turned to drugs and alcohol.

“They made it easier for me to endure the physical, emotional and sexual abuse when I was numb,” she recalled. “After our third child was born, I knew something had to change. I already worked as a certified nursing assistant,” so she enrolled in the nursing program at Southwestern Michigan College.

“My husband didn’t care if I went to school, as long as I worked fulltime and didn’t expect him to babysit our children. Even though I was still using, I felt in control,” she said. “My family jumped on that glimmer of hope, pleading and urging me to leave my husband. They promised to help me, so I did it. I left him. A couple of weeks later, my estranged husband tried to kill me.

“I had agreed to talk to him because we were going to meet up with some friends. I agreed to ride with him back to my car. He then questioned me as to why I wanted a divorce all of a sudden. I tried to explain that this wasn’t sudden, but had been going on for years. He drove to a field, pulled me out of the truck by my feet and proceeded to choke me until I passed out. When I came to, his hands were still around my neck. He asked me if I realized how easily he could snap my neck and nobody would know. He told me our children didn’t need a slut for a mother. I begged him and pleaded for my life and promised to come home, to quit work and school and do whatever he wanted. He started crying and telling me how much he loved me. It was the most bizarre and terrifying moment of my life.”

DASAS offered her services, which she refused, but she didn’t return home.

She felt, “I didn’t need help now, I had escaped.”

But Tara “plunged deeper into my drug and alcohol addiction and into a new relationship with a man whose addictions were just as bad as mine. I even moved him into my home with my children. Even now, I felt in control without realizing how out of control my life had become. It wasn’t long until we were arrested for drug possession and my children were taken away and placed in foster care. I lost my home and job and could not return to the nursing program, but I now realize it probably saved my life, so I praise the Lord every day for opening my eyes to the horror that was my life.”

This time she “grabbed and received every service the Department of Human Services offered and I plunged into my recovery like I plunged into my addictions. I started attending one-on-one counseling. I learned that no matter how hard I tried” to satisfy her abuser, she never could because “it’s his sickness and I didn’t cause it and I can’t fix it. It’s about power and control.

“I learned to build myself back up and gain back confidence and self-esteem. I’ve learned to set boundaries and to be assertive for my needs and the needs of my children and to recognize the warning signs of abusers. I’ve become involved in my church” and found employment with a mental health agency as a peer support specialist helping others who suffer from domestic violence. She serves on the agency’s board of directors and attends the Cass County Task Force for Family Violence.

“I’ve built a strong network around myself of people who help keep me accountable for my choices,” Tara said. “I’m very aware that even though I have separated myself from my abuser and that lifestyle, there are still ways he may and can control me. The biggest way is my children and the court system, where he is still able to exert his power. But I also know I’m no longer a helpless victim, but a strong, intelligent woman. I have my own power and I won’t back down. I have rights and I will continue to fight for what I believe in. I just pray that whoever is struggling and is in a hopeless situation, don’t give up. There are so many people out here who want to reach out and help you. Seek those people out. You don’t have to be a victim. Like me and so many other women, you can be a survivor, too.”