Teenagers from schools across the county joined together Jan. 27 for a candlelight vigil in memory of Jacque Villagomez – who was beaten to death by her boyfriend in 2008 – as part of a teen domestic violence education and awareness program developed by Orange County domestic violence shelter Laura’s House.
Hosted by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at its Regional Training Academy in Tustin, the Friday evening event featured speakers from Laura’s House, Anika’s Pink Closet founder 13-year-old Anika Ortiz and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.
“In Orange County, one in three teens is experiencing some form of dating violence in their relationships,” said Hutchens. “One in five teens is experiencing bullying on their school property.”
Ballet dancer Sabrina Cohen opened the event with a piece from “Swan Lake,” honoring one of Villagomez’s passions, which was dance.
Jennifer Ponce, Laura’s House prevention education manager, said Villagomez was a surfer, athlete and singer.
“She tried out in ‘American Idol,’” she said. “She had such a bright future.”
At the age of 19, Villagomez was brutally beaten by her boyfriend, Ponce said.
“This May, Jacque would (have been) 28 years old,” she said.
To address the problem of teen dating and domestic violence, Laura’s House created HEART (Healthy Emotions & Attitudes in Relationships Today).
“We know that domestic violence and dating violence is preventable,” Ponce said.
The group works to educate teens in middle schools, high schools and colleges in Orange County, helping students learn how to identify red flags of unhealthy relationships, as well as offering resources they can turn to for support. The hope is to educate teens now so that one day as adults they will no longer need these services, Ponce said.
Laura’s House CEO Margaret Bayston presented a plaque to Hutchens to honor the sheriff’s commitment in supporting Laura’s House’s cause against domestic violence.
“We knew at Laura’s House, we had to do something about teen abuse,” Bayston said, explaining HEART’s inception. “The goal is to teach our young students on what to look for in a healthy relationship.”
As presenters spoke about teen domestic violence, “red flags” were projected on the auditorium’s screen behind them. “Where are you?” was shown as one example of a possible red flag in teen relationships.
“In our workshops, we cover all the different types of violence,” said Ponce, adding that it’s not always just physical, it can also present itself as emotional and cyber abuse. “We also talk about why people don’t leave.”
As part of HEART’s involvement with Orange County schools, the group honored Cypress High School teacher Corey Hauge for going above and beyond, said Ponce. He provided supplies for students with funds out of his own pocket to help raise awareness on campus about dating violence, Ponce said. He was awarded the Teachers Together to End Dating Violence Award.
Orange County teenager and motivational speaker Ortiz also took the stage to tell her peers about her family’s tragedy. Ortiz’s sister, Alejandra, was shot nine times and killed by her estranged husband in 2011, said Ortiz.
“Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way what domestic violence really was,” she said.
Ortiz also was the victim of bullying at school.
“I didn’t want to keep acting like I didn’t care,” she said. “Deep down inside, it really hurt.”
She got her mom involved and decided to change things, including starting Anika’s Pink Closet, which offers classes, speaking engagements and community service, and works as a peer mentoring experience for girls.
Ortiz told the audience of teens to report bullying when they see it and “don’t be a bystander.”
“Let’s be kind to each other,” she said. “Let’s be the generation to end bullying and domestic violence.”
Ortiz’s presentation ended with a standing ovation and was followed by the candle-lighting ceremony for Villagomez, which was done with plastic candles that had been previously handed out to audience members. Video of Villagomez was projected on the screen as candles lit the darkened room.
Hutchens told Behind the Badge that the agency has worked with Laura’s House for many years, including hosting the vigil for the past four years. The agency also receives training and education for its deputies, who regularly see domestic violence situations, she said.
“I think the education part that they’re doing in the schools is so important,” she said.
Said Bayston: “It’s powerful when everybody comes together and recognizes what’s really an epidemic in the community… The only way to stop domestic violence is through prevention.”