Ann Arbor shelter works with teens to warn peers about dating violence

Verizon grants and cellphone donations help fund programs like Teen Voice around the country

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – One in three teenagers is the victim of abuse from a dating partner, according to The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or verbal. 

One in 10 students has been purposely hit or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, victims are often too afraid to tell anyone about it. The abuse can affect them for the rest of their lives, leading to issues like depression, anxiety and unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drinking.

SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor started a program called Teen Voice that uses teenagers to teach their peers the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships and dating violence.

"The Teen Voice program was started about 13 years ago when we realized there were so many teens in our community who didn't understand what domestic violence and sexual assault is and needed some information to better understand it; teach their peers about it," says Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse Center.

Madeline Qi is a Teen Voice volunteer and a senior at Washtenaw International High School.

"I do it because I'm really passionate about women's issues. It's an issue that's important to me for personal reasons," said Qi.

Qi makes it her job to educate her peers on what to do if they know someone in an unhealthy relationship.

"Sometimes people don't know what to say, and they don't know how to help," Qi said.

Teens Voice volunteers meet weekly to plan out their presentations. They speak to students in schools and through other groups.

"When you have someone else who's your own age and talk talk to you about certain issues that include interactive presentations, then it's easier to pay attention and hear it from someone who's similar to yourself because you can relate more," Qi said.

Ali Shahin is also a Teen Voice volunteer. He said hearing the information from peers can have an impact on teenagers.

"When you walk in there most of those kids don't know how common it is, but they walk out knowing that it is a third of all adolescence who have been through an unhealthy relationship at some point. It puts it in perspective for them, and I feel like it would be more difficult to do that if its just an adult telling you this," said Shahin, a senior at Skyline High School.

He is personally motivated to help.

"Growing up, a lot of people in my life, some friends, some family, had been through some unhealthy relationships," Shahin said.

Presentations include defining dating violence, acting out scenarios, a discussion on the issue and how to bring about change, and signs to look for. Teens also learn that dating violence does not just happen in person, it can happen digitally, and parents need to be on the lookout as well.

"It becomes even more dangerous for teens partially because parents and adults don't always take it very seriously because they think of the puppy love syndrome or it can't be that bad or he can't be threatening her in that way because they're all being really dramatic anyway right," said Barbara Niess-May, director of SafeHouse Center.

What signs should parents be on the lookout for?

"When you notice the texting is going all night long or they're calling them in the middle of the night, especially if they have a test the next day, or keeping them out past their curfew," said Niess-May.

Parents should also look for changes in mood, sudden weight loss and isolation. Even changes in social media could be a clue something is not right.

"The constant attention and the constant interaction they seem to be with this person 24/7 and when they're not they're calling and texting," Niess-May said.

Qi hopes her peers walk away from a Teen Voice presentation with the knowledge of how they can help.

"I want them to not feel like they have no control over the situation, and if they are personally experiencing an unhealthy relationship or they know somebody who is, I want them to feel like they have something that they can do or that they can understand somebody who is in that situation," Qi said.

Verizon donates money and phones to help stop domestic violence through its HopeLine program.

"The reality is even if we're just saving one life, that's so important to us and it can't be underscored enough," says Trevor Thomas, a public relations manager at Verizon.

The company said domestic violence is a national problem that affects everyone, including its own employees.

"We have lost employees to domestic violence throughout our company, multiple employees, and we have recognized that it impacts our communities, our friends, our neighbors, our churches," said Thomas.

Nationwide the company has provided $29 million in grants, which help fund programs like the SafeHouse Center's Teen Voice program.

Verizon has donated 190,000 phones to shelters with free minutes and texting that victims and survivors of domestic violence can reach out to the help resources they need. 

The public can donate their old phones at any Verizon Wireless location. Before you donate your phone, Verizon said to erase any data from the phone and disconnect the phone's service with the provider, remove any storage cards or SIM cards, power off the phone and please include the battery, charger and accessories in a plastic bag with the phone when it's donated. For more information, click here.

SafeHouse Center serves more than 5,000 people every year in the Ann Arbor providing services including it's help line, counseling, support groups, legal advocacy, obtaining PPOs, shelter for women and their children, and answering questions from loved ones and friends about how they can help.  For more information, click here.

SafeHouse Center's 24/7 hotline is (734) 995-5444.