Five hundred is a lot of flags.
The students in the Angels Against Abuse club at East High School know, because that’s how many of the fluttering emblems they plant on the school’s lawn each year to symbolize the number of teens at East who will experience dating violence.
“When you look at all the flags, it’s kind of overwhelming,” says East junior and club member Sarah Berman. “It’s not just some random, out-there thing; it’s right there.”
According to Anne Ngamsombat, the adviser for Angels Against Abuse and East’s school-based counselor, the number of flags equals the national statistical average. “One in four teens,” Ngamsombat says. “With a little more than 2,000 students at East, 500 is about right.”
Ngamsombat’s work at East and Angels Against Abuse are but two of the many services offered by Project PAVE, one of a number of agencies applying for funds from this year’s Season to Share campaign. PAVE, which stands for Promoting Alternatives to Violence Through Education, has a clear mission, according to program director Adam Evans.
“We want to stop relationship violence at its earliest possible point,” Evans says. “And the way to do that is through education.”
To accomplish its goals, PAVE works with schools in the seven- county Denver metro area. Three schools — East, Morey Middle School and Whittier K-8 School — provide school-based counseling, which means there’s a counselor available at all times to work with any victim of violence. Evans says that all of the schools could offer counseling if the funding were available.
“We have been adamant about expanding only when we can absolutely offer the programming,” Evans says. “We don’t want a situation where we start a program and then have to end it.”
In addition, PAVE goes into the schools’ health classes for a week at a time to discuss the warning signs of abuse and share ways to foster healthy relationship habits through age-appropriate activities. Evans says this is where teens often find themselves feeling more comfortable opening up.
“That’s an area where we’ll get a lot of referrals,” Evans says. “After class, someone will stop a counselor and say, ‘You know, this is happening to me,’ or ‘I have a friend who this is happening to. What should I do?’ Adults might think, ‘Oh, no, this isn’t happening here, not in my area,’ but it’s just more hidden in some places.”
PAVE also has two full-time therapists, including one Spanish speaker, at its headquarters at East 21st Avenue and York Street, where children can access a large, “safe” play area to spend time with counselors while adults receive assistance in a neutral, homelike space. The program offers a website (projectpave .org) with resources too, as well as a comprehensive “Just for Teens” site with a clickable “hide me” button that allows them to get information without fear of negative consequences.
“When people are in an abusive relationship, it’s really degrading,” says East junior Ellie Ciccarelli, a member of Angels Against Abuse. “We want to come up with things that help their self-esteem and make them feel included.”
In the three years these Angels have been giving up their lunch periods to brainstorm ideas for promoting dating violence awareness through creative events, they believe they’ve made a difference.
“We definitely make an impact,” Berman says. “It may not be huge. We’re not going to be able to counsel people, obviously, we’re kids; we don’t have that kind of authority. But we can make people aware. That’s our goal.”