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After experiencing domestic violence, two Baltimore survivors organized a walkathon to raise awareness

Two survivors are behind Baltimore City’s first annual walk to end domestic violence, Reach for the Stars. On the last Friday in October, the evening walkathon in Downtown Baltimore raised $1,700 in online donations.

“The outcome we wanted was to take back the night,” said Ashley Rivera, co-organizer of Reach for the Stars.

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Rivera is a manager at a wellness clinic, Charm City Integrative Health, and co-researcher for a University of Maryland, Baltimore County study on domestic violence in Baltimore City and Howard County.

Ashley Rivera and Lauren Williams co-organized Baltimore City’s Reach for the Stars, a walkathon during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Ashley Rivera and Lauren Williams co-organized Baltimore City’s Reach for the Stars, a walkathon during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. (Adam Bona/handout)

“The statistics of violence taking place during the darker, colder months does increase,” Rivera said. “And that not only brings seasonal depression keeping people indoors, that naturally causes a form of isolation. Sometimes those indoor places are where lots of that harm happens.”

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Baltimore City reported more than 460 violent domestic crimes the first three months of this year, rising from 354 incidents during the same period last year. In 2020, Baltimore recorded the highest-ever number of women killed in the city’s history, with at least 48 women slain throughout the year, many of them Black.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and national cases like that of Gabby Petito have generated discussions about “missing white woman syndrome,” a hunger for stories about white victims to the exclusion of victims of color.

Other domestic violence-related events in the area include Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office Purple Bicycle Ride and the First Lady Tea & Wellness Social, hosted by Toinette Jenkins, wife of Anthony L. Jenkins, president of Coppin State University.

“I wanted to bring law enforcement, community, and business owners together, not just as survivors,” Rivera said. “We wanted to bring a night of solidarity where people can come together, connect, share stories.”

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For walkathon co-organizer Lauren Williams, it took six years before she started seeing a therapist and talked about her experiences as a domestic violence survivor. Williams said seeing a trauma specialist, doing EMDR and brainspotting helped her heal and inspired her to start the walkathon.

EMDR (eye movement densensitization and reprocessing) and brainspotting are two forms of psychotherapy that use the brain’s connection to visual stimuli to desensitize a patient to painful memories.

“I was coming into the holistic clinic where [Rivera] works part time, and we had bonded already over having similar stories as survivors,” said Williams, a Baltimore native and registered nurse. “The day that I actually finished the completion of all of my trauma sessions was that day that she asked me to help her with spearheading something in Baltimore.”

Williams and Rivers put in $600 of their own money to host the walkathon. Williams was surprised when her employer, University of Maryland Medical System, donated a $10,000 grant to Reach for the Stars.

“Domestic abuse and violence is a public health issue, and sadly there are too many instances of this occurring in Maryland,” said Michael Schwartzberg, UMMS spokesman. “Supporting programs such as Reach for the Stars is one way that our efforts can extend beyond the walls of our hospitals and into communities across our footprint in the state.”

“People just flock to help you,” Williams said. “We had no idea that it would arrive at this. We are just two survivors that wanted to put this together.”

The original plan was to have the evening walkathon at Patterson Park. Hours before the event, Williams and Rivera secured an indoor location at FX Studios and the Under Armour Performance Center due to the inclement weather forecast.

“Even if it was three people or 300 people, people still came and were moved and received something from the event, whether it was a connection, whether it was a resource, whether it was a conversation that they’re able to carry on with their community,” Rivera said. ”It was a dark, wet, cold, rainy Friday night, and everyone left with the positive vibes.”

Speakers talked about their experiences with domestic violence while jazz musicians Brandon Woody and UPENDO performed. Rivera and Williams have received more than 330 pledges for peace, an online petition calling on restaurants, business owners, bars and neighborhood organizations to practice bystander intervention. Pledge commitments include talking with one’s community about healthy and equitable relationships and care, as well as challenging those who use laughter, insensitive language or degrading jokes to minimize the conversation.

“Every opportunity to reach survivors of intimate partner violence is important,” said Lisa Nitsch, director of training and education for House of Ruth Maryland, one of the event’s participants. “These abuses usually happen in the shadows, behind closed doors. Everyone in Baltimore needs to start with being safe in their own home if we have any hope of building a safer city.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

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