In 1996, Valerie Williams had her first and only experience with domestic violence with her husband.
“He had never been abusive,” Williams said. “No signs of abuse, married eight and a half years. (He) called me home at lunchtime. In a 20-minute period, I was shot three times with a .38 Smith & Wesson.”
He shot her once in the head and twice in her right arm. She spent three days in the hospital “no surgery, no nothing,” which in-and-of-itself was a blessing, but it was while she was on her couch begging him not to kill her that she had her first real connection with God in a long time.
“He just was not hearing me. And then I heard God say ‘You’re calling and begging but you aren’t calling on me.’ I stopped and prayed a quick prayer, ‘Lord be with me,’” Williams said.
At the time, she didn’t feel much pain and didn’t know she had been shot in the head until she saw it for herself in a mirror at the hospital, but she’s still dealing with the lasting effects of the shooting to this day.
She was released after three days, at which point she took her young children to stay with her mother.
“The sad thing was, they left that morning for day care and school but they never went back to their home. Nothing was ever the same,” Williams said.
Not long after, she saw herself identified in the pages of The News as a victim of domestic violence, which didn’t sit well with her.
“I got very upset, because at that time I thought of domestic violence — as a lot of people think — it’s a physical thing, like it’s a beating,” Williams said. “That’s what you think of. And I was like The Brunswick News is going to retract this because I am not a victim of domestic violence. That was going to be my mission because you don’t want to have the stereotype and have people think you’ve been in this abusive relationship all these years.”
Talking with her assigned advocate Bobby Patrick during the subsequent criminal trial, she learned a lot about the nature of domestic violence.
“She said whether it was one time or 100 times, one time is abuse,” Williams said.
All of these events gave her a lot to think about. She began researching domestic violence to determine exactly how to define it.
“I asked myself, ‘Was that one time one time too many?’ And the answer is yes,” Williams said.
At the same time, she was struggling with the aftermath of the shooting. She felt like God had to have some reason for her to survive, or else she wouldn’t have. Around the time, she wrote and self-published the first of three books, “God’s Divine Intervention.”
That book opened up several avenues, and she began going to women’s shelters, local civic groups and churches, and speaking about her experience, both with domestic violence and listening to God.
“My pain ended up turning into my purpose,” Williams said. “I began to heal, and then I realized that my story was helping women that were in the shelters I was going to throughout Georgia. And I was realizing that, despite the fact that I hadn’t been battered, was helping women who had been battered for years to even just have the hope and to know something good can come out of something so devastating and horrible.”
With that realization, she sought to take the message to whomever she thought it would help. She began looking for opportunities to speak at colleges and universities as well.
In 2010, she was appointed to the Georgia Commission on Family Violence and found out how big the issue of domestic violence is among young people.
“That’s when I started seeing that Georgia was No. 1 in teen dating violence,” Williams said. “I say dating violence, I mean ages 16 to 24. For the past six years, we had rated No. 1 in the nation.”
Dating violence is the same thing as domestic violence, she said. The distinction is the age group and the fact that those involved generally aren’t married or living together.
“Believe me, it is the same. And it may be even worse now because the cell phone is the No. 1 tool that is used for abuse. We call it the electronic leash because I don’t have to be with you to keep up with you,” Williams said.
Seeing how young the seeds of violent tendencies could begin sprouting, she started the LoveSmart program.
“It’s training the brain for healthy relationships,” Williams said. “Sad to say, we need to start at elementary, like when they leave fifth grade going into middle school. Teach them what healthy signs are in a relationship and what unhealthy signs are. Pretty much middle school is when they start, you know, ‘He’s cute,’ ‘She’s cute,’ playing with each other’s hair and stuff like that.”
Ideally, the program helps children who may not know any better to identify the signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship and how to avoid them.
“The idea is to teach and bring awareness to these signs so we don’t get into toxic relationships that can end in someone losing their life,” Williams said.
Children don’t innately understand the causes and effects of domestic violence, she said, and they need to be taught about it the same as anything else.
“I’ve had many young people tell me ‘I’ve never heard of abuse.’ I’ve had people young people say, ‘Well I live with that, I thought that was normal that you fuss and fight,’ because they don’t know, they aren’t being educated in schools,” Williams said.
Completely stamping out the problem of domestic violence seems like an impossible task, she said, but that won’t deter her.
For more information on the LoveSmart program, visit valerielwilliams.org. Information and resources on domestic violence can be found at cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence or by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Coastal People appears Tuesdays. Contact Taylor Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 912-265-8320, ext. 324 to suggest a person for a column.