Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Guest Blogger RONDA RACHA PENRICE: "Fighting For Their Lives" On Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the "Silent Witness" exhibit . . .

Christal Cooper

*Article previously published in South Magazine November issue
**Copyright granted by South Magazine, Ronda Racha Penrice, and Blake Crosby

       Sadly Lauren Smart’s letter was read in court – after her death.  On Saturday, June 7, 2014, Norman Smart killed Lauren Brown Smart.  She would have been 35 on July 10.  Even more horrifying, her oldest boy from her first marriage, just six at the time, witnessed it all.  Her other son with Smart hadn’t even turned a year old.   

       Responding to a call from Norman Smart, police found Lauren on the floor in the mater bedroom of their Wilmington Island, Georgia home on her back, with abrasions on her forehead, arms and elbows and blood stains on the carpet.  Norman was then charged with murder. 

       During the trial, the medical examiner testified that Norman Smart beat, strangled and stomped a reportedly drunk Lauren to her death – the pattern of his shoes matched the injuries on her body. 

       There’s no way to sugarcoat the horror of this crime  - nor its pervasiveness in this country.  Every day three women are murdered by a current or former male boyfriend.  Twenty people (including a small number of men) are victims of intimate-partner violence every single minute, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Every nine seconds, reports Domestic Violence Statistics, a woman is beaten or assaulted.  Over 38 million women experience domestic violence every year.  Sadly, as many as 10 million children witness this type of violence annually.

       A woman’s level of education doesn’t shield her from abuse and neither does her economic status.  Domestic violence may be stereotyped as a crime of the poor and uneducated, but that’s far from the truth.  Women of all backgrounds are victimized.

       Melissa (nor her real name) truly debunks those stereotypes.  This well-known socialite and independent professional in Savannah never imagined she would become a victim of abuse.  Yet, just a few months into her relationship with a man she believed to be a great match, she found herself a victim.  

       Looking back, she says, “My first red light should have been one evening when he was upset and ripped my car keys out of my hand.  I attributed it to a bad day at work.”  There was no explaining away what happened to her during their “romantic” getaway to the Bahamas, however.  “He got upset with me one night and pushed me, in my pajamas, out of our room and threw my suitcase at me.  I got another room in the hotel and had every intention of flying out the next day.”  

       But she didn’t.  The next morning, the hotel manager told her, “He’s very upset.  He feels terrible – maybe you should talk to him.”  She followed that well-intentioned but very bad advice and spoke to her boyfriend.  “He apologized profusely; said he was going to get help, all the things you expect him to say,” she recounts.  “He told me about the therapy he was going to and the breakthroughs he head with his anger-management issues.”  

       Not long after, it happened again.  “For whatever reason, something triggered his rage again one night, “ she recalls.  “And he came up behind me and hit me so hard that my teeth went through my lips.  I hit the ground and screamed,  “I’m bleeding!”  He said, “You think you’re f---ing bleeding now?” and he picked me up by my hair, stomped my head on the ground and dragged me through the house and let (me) go in the front yard.  I had on jeans and a tank top and it was 30 degrees outside.” 

       Waiting until she could safely go back in the house, Melissa quickly grabbed her purse, got into her car, and left.  “I didn’t go to the hospital immediately.  I was in disbelief,” she explains.  ‘I was that typical (woman), ‘How could this be happening to me?’”    

       She then called the therapist her boyfriend had been seeing and got another shock.  ‘I’m sorry.  I don’t know this person.  You need to call the police,” the therapist told her.   

       Enter organizations like Savannah’s SAFE (Savannah Area Family Emergency) Shelter Center for Domestic Violence Services that, for the last 35 years, assists women less able than Melissa to find refuge from abuse.  Former journalist Cheryl Branch has dedicated nearly 20 years to SAFE Shelter, serving as executive director since 2007 after heading the shelter’s outreach program where she regularly helped women get restraining orders, among other services.    

       “Abusers don’t see anything wrong with what they do,” Branch says matter-of-factly:  “I firmly believe it’s a learned behavior.  Often, one or both of the people in an abusive relationship grew up in a home where there was some kind of abuse – verbal, emotional or physical.”     

       Low self-esteem, Branch says, affects women of all backgrounds.  It’s also an abuser’s number-one weapon.  By and large, women blame themselves for the way they are treated.  Women rationalize the behavior by saying to themselves, “I am going to fix that bad boy,” says Branch.  “He had a rough life.  And I, through the power of my love, am going to transform him.”  

                                          Wendy Williamson 

       Many of the calls SAFE Shelter receives come from concerned family and friends struggling to help a loved one reluctant to leave an abusive relationship.  Branch advises they reassure their victimized loved ones, “I’m here for you.”  When women do leave an abuser, SAFE Shelter aids them in numerous ways, especially in holding the abuser accountable and offering programs for children in order to break the cycle of abuse.  

       “We didn’t even have battered-women shelters until the 70s’ in this country, “Branch notes, explaining that awareness has improved, but still has a ways to go.  A powerful reminder is ‘Silent Witness Initiative,” a national art exhibit that travels to various venues and events featuring life-sized, free-standing silhouettes bearing the names of deceased victims.  

                                 Photo by Blake Crosby
For Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, the Chatham County Silent Witness Exhibit will be on display in Savannah for the first time – and Lauren Brown Smart is one of the 13 victims highlighted.

       “We get so numb to statistics and you need that reminder that this was a daughter, a sister, a mother,” Branch says of “Silent Witness.”    

       Sunni Brown, Lauren Brown Smart’s mother, needs no such reminders, though.   The horrific aftereffects of her death haunt Sunni every day.  Lauren’s oldest son, now seven, who witnessed his mother’s death, has been in therapy since the murder, but still fears that Normal Smart, despite being sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 20 years for cruelty to children will still come for him.  And now, the youngest grandson, who is nearing two, is in therapy too.    

       She says what pains her most about the tragedy is that “two children have to grow up without a mother.”  Brown says she hopes the telling of Lauren’s story will help a domestic-violence victim get out of an abusive relationship before it’s too late.     

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Michigan Resident Walks Michigan's Shore-To-Shore Trail

Christal Cooper

Article 1,326 Words

*This article was previously published on September 12, 2015 by The Daily News, which covers Greenville, Belding, and Montcalm Counties in Michigan

**Copyright granted by The Daily News and Mike Taylor

Guest Blogger:  Mike Taylor
Miles To Go: 
Meredith Geselman Hikes Michigan’s “Shore-To-Shore” Trail

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost, from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

       Generations have read and loved Frost’s depiction of a silent, snow-shrouded woodland, but few have lived first-hand that ephemeral, fleeting communion with the natural world recounted in the poet’s words.  Those who have don’t forget their experience.

       Former Stanton resident Meredith Geselman, who now lives and works in Saginaw, is one of the lucky ones.  This summer she managed to store up 20 days worth of memories by walking across the state, from Oscoda to Empire.

       Most of her journey took her along the Shore-to- Shore trail, though she sometimes left it in favor of less-sandy country roads or small villages.  She started the trip with friend and roommate, Megan Parks, but was alone for the final 15 days after Parks suffered an injury and couldn’t continue.
       Geselman says she hikes regularly, but admits none of her little “day trips” fully prepared her for nearly three weeks on the open trail.  Eschewing modern amenities, she carried everything needed for the trip on her back, including food and shelter.

       On lucky nights, she would set up camp in one of the primitive campgrounds that dot the trail.  Other nights, she simply made came in fields alongside the trail.

       Days would pass without her seeing or speaking with another person.  She was unprepared, she says, for the loneliness and physical exertion required for the trip.
       “I guess it was kind of a Forrest Gump thing,” Geselman says.  “this was my first hiking a longer distance, my first time going overnight.  The trail is 234 miles.  I managed to average about 12 miles per day.”

       Geselman’s inspiration for the journey came from growing up with stories of the Appalachian Trail and others like it.  That trail – which runs from Georgia to Maine – generally takes hikers about six months to complete. 

Geselman, who works as a food service manager at City Rescue Center homeless shelter in Saginaw, didn’t have that kind of time.  The Shore-to-Shore trail seemed a viable alternative.

       Originally, Geselman conceived the trip as a fundraiser to send inner city kids to summer camp, but says she couldn’t get all (her) ducks in a row in time.  She’s considering doing it all again next year, giving more attention to the fundraising aspect of it.

         Considering the difficulty of her journey it’s a little surprising to her speak of an encore performance.
       Relatives checked in on her at various points along the route, so she wasn’t entirely without a support system.  Geselman’s aunt, Kathy Beach, describes one such meeting.

       “My sister met her up by Curtis,” Beach says.  “When they picked her up she had blisters all over her feet.  It was bad.”
       “At the end of the first week I had about 10 blisters” Geselman agrees.  “One was giant, on the outside of both feet.”
       Despite this, she shouldered on and by the end of the trip hard use had worn the blisters away.

       Her dog, Tanner, who accompanied Geselman, fared less well.  Somewhere along the way, the dog drank from a puddle infested with parasitic bacteria.  He was, according to Geselman, flagging somewhat by journey’s end and required medication to get him on his feet again.

       One might think the trail would be rife with hikers ruing the height of summer, but that wasn’t the case.
       “I saw only three other hikers the whole time,” Geselman says.  “And honestly, they had parked their car about a mile down the trail from a campground and had just walked the few minutes in and were camping.  I also saw about 10 people on horseback and a few more in various campgrounds.  I didn’t meet anyone else who was hiking or riding through, thought.”

       Part of the reason for this may be the Shore-to-Shore trail is notoriously difficult to hike, owing in large part to its sandy composition.  (Picture walking 234 miles on a sandy beach and you’ll have a fairly accurate idea of Geselman’s experience.)

       Another aspect that keeps some hikers away is the wildlife, which includes bears and coyotes.  The ideas of predators didn’t worry Geselman much while Parks was with her, but once again things changed.

       “That first night (alone) I was really sacred,” she says.  “That was the night when the coyotes came closest.  I could hear them howling right outside, near my campsite out in the middle of the woods.  I was kind of freaking out.  I stayed awake a long time that night.

       “But at least I didn’t see any bears, so I’m thankful for that, because I didn’t have anything to stop them with.”
       An experienced camper, Geselman knew enough to put her food and gear in a tree at night to thwart nocturnal scavengers.

       From a psychological standpoint, Geselman says the thing she missed most (other than people) was knowing the time.  Parks had the pair’s only watch and took it with her when she left the trail.

       Though she had packed a mobile phone, Geselman used it only to check her time and location the first thing every morning in order to conserve battery life.
       “The weirdest thing was not knowing what time it was,” she says.  “The map I carried wasn’t that great.   It was all just walking and trying to guess how far I’d come and whether it was a good time to stop and set up camp.  I hated not knowing.

       “Sometimes I’d be in the middle of thick woods, sometimes in a field of ferns.  I didn’t want to get stuck in the middle of a really deep woods, but I also wanted to get as far as I could.  It’s tricky trying to figure it out without a watch.  I just prayed to the Lord that he would give me a good campsite and that I wouldn’t get eaten by a bear.”

       Geselman admits she was “Pretty much done” five days before reaching Empire and the end of the trail.
       “I was just tired of walking,” she says.  “it was a lot.  Some parts were absolutely beautiful.  I love Michigan and the scenery we have here.  But some was just uphill sand for miles and that’s just not pleasant.”

       Despite the exhaustion – now gone but not forgotten – Geselman says she will likely make the trip, or one like it, again.  Next time, however she plans to bring along a larger group of hikers.  It was after all the lack of human contact she found to be the most difficult challenge.

       Those few she did meet along the trail were kind, she says.  Some gave her water, some offered rides, some shared only their company, which, considering the lack thereof, was enough.

       According to her aunt, Geselman is a “giving person” who loves the outdoors, is determined and independent, and not the sort to give up on a challenge once begun.

       She did it because she felt God wanted her to do it,” Beach says.  “But we were all a little worried.  She didn’t just stretch her faith, she stretched ours as well.  We wanted to pick her up and so many times, but we had to just let her do it.”

       Loneliness aside, hiking solo has its good points, Geselman says.  You set your own schedule eat when you want, sleep when you want.  You needn’t worry about following someone else’s routine.  Even so, it’s not something she plans to do again any time soon.

       “I think I will probably do a long hike again,” she says.  “It was very peaceful being alone and all that.  But I just missed talking with people.  I missed the social contact.  Next time I’ll be doing it with some other people.”

Photograph Description And Copyright Information

***All photographs are given copyright privilege by Meredith Geselman unless otherwise noted

Photo 1
The Daily News web log
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 2
Mike Taylor
Web logo photo
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 4
Robert Frost in 1941
Attributed to Fred Palumbo
Public Domain

Photo 5
Jacket cover of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
Illustrated by Susan Jeffers
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 6
Michigan equestrian and hiking trail from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron
Attributed to Barnyers99

Photos 8, 25, and 30
Meredith Geselman in Empire at Lake Michigan.
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 9
Meredith Geselman’s campground
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 10
Scenic pictu5e of the Shore-To-Shore Trail
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 11
American Map depicting the Appalachian Trail
Public Domain

Photos 12 and 13
Shore-to-Shore trail
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 14
Kathy Beach
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 15
Meredith’s blisters
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 16
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 17
Horseback riders on the trail at Goose Creek Camp
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 18.
Meredith Geselman on the sandy composition of the Shore-to-Shore Trail.
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 19.
Meredith Geselman’s last night of camping.
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman.

Photo 20
Meredith’s campground.
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman

Photo 26.
Meredith Geselman’s campground near Kalkaska, Michigan
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman.

Photo 27
Meredith Geselman found a treasure trove of “water” at one of her campgrounds.
Copyright granted by Meredith Geselman.