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The Lifeline

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Featured Photo from Be BRAVE

Local teens unite in the fight against dating violence

Here’s a sobering statistic: An estimated one in three teenagers will experience abuse in a dating relationship. One in three.

Michelle Jewett, a prevention educator at SafeHouse of Seminole, says this growing problem can’t be ignored.

“Teen dating violence is something that we have to pay attention to,” she says. “It’s out there. If we don’t talk about it, it’s not going to change.”
In 2014, Michelle helped launch a dating-violence prevention program for teens at SafeHouse, a certified domestic violence shelter serving Seminole County. B.R.A.V.E., which stands for Bystanders Rising Above Violence Everywhere, is a student-led program that is open to Seminole County high-school kids. The group’s members raise awareness about youth dating violence and promote safe, healthy relationships. These teen ambassadors accomplish their goals via fun peer activities and engaging, educational community events.

In late February, B.R.A.V.E. teamed with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence to host a youth talent show at the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center in Sanford. February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.

Students from Seminole County high schools and Florida Virtual School presented a variety of acts, including dance numbers and an amusing skit about pick-up lines that should best be avoided.

One of the contest winners was Matt Koonce, a junior at Seminole High and a B.R.A.V.E. ambassador. Matt performed a spoken-word piece based on his feelings about the physical, sexual, and verbal abuse he experienced in two dating relationships.

“Sadly, domestic violence has been a part of not only my life, but my family’s,” says Matt, who joined B.R.A.V.E. to get more involved and help others in the community. “I wanted to be able to take a stand and fight against domestic violence.”

Joslynn Gallo, a junior at Lyman High, is also a B.R.A.V.E. ambassador. Working to effect positive change within her social circles and the community at large appeals to her. B.R.A.V.E. meets twice a month during the school year and more frequently during the summer at its headquarters at 901 South French Avenue in Sanford.

“Coming here and learning something new that I can share with my family and peers is very rewarding,” says Joslynn, who joined B.R.A.V.E. during her freshman year at Lyman.

Michelle, along with Jennifer Gama, who is also a SafeHouse prevention educator, are the program’s advisers. B.R.A.V.E. is a welcoming, inclusive group that is LGBTQ-friendly.

“This is sort of like a new Breakfast Club,” quips Jennifer, referring to the 1980s-era movie about a group of high-school kids from various backgrounds who are thrown together one morning. “They’ve had to go out of their comfort zone.”

Although the advisers are there to train and guide the students, the teens do most of the work.

“The kids get to be the faces and voices of B.R.A.V.E.,” says Jennifer. “They’re peer educators, so we teach them what we know, and then it’s up to them to go and share that.”

Michelle agrees, adding, “Teens learn best from their peers.”

B.R.A.V.E. puts on four events a year, with its talent show being the biggest. The group’s next peer event, a game night, will be at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, May 18 at its Sanford headquarters.

B.R.A.V.E.’s ambassadors are also available to speak to schools, churches, and other groups about dating violence and positive relationships. The program started with just four kids and has more than doubled in size. Students receive volunteer service hours for the time they put in with B.R.A.V.E.

Matt, who is president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Seminole High, values the group’s open atmosphere.

“We’re all very chill. We listen to each other’s ideas,” he says. “It’s always nice to be able to speak and have people listen to you and agree with you – or disagree with you – in a civil way.”

Being part of B.R.A.V.E. is empowering for these students, Jennifer and Michelle believe, because it allows them to have a degree of power – something teens typically lack.

“It gives them a voice,” Michelle says. “They want to make a difference, they really do. It’s a passion for them.”

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