Discussing domestic violence was the last thing on Lisa Jennings Ducharme's mind two years ago when she arranged a meeting with the regional director of the United Family Services for the Lake Norman area.
United Family Services, a non-profit agency, offers a wide range of family counseling services, and Ducharme, 44, a Charlotte executive with extensive banking experience, wanted to see if she could volunteer her expertise to the agency's financial counseling program.
However, as she and Regional Director Kathryn Firmin-Sellers spoke, Ducharme began to open up about her past.
"At first, I did not even know about UFS's Domestic Violence Program," said Ducharme. "But then I began to realize that I had a unique perspective and our conversation migrated over to domestic violence."
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Ducharme had survived two abusive relationships: a nightmare senior year at an upstate New York college where a 6-foot-3 jealous boyfriend virtually left her to die after beating her up, and a five-year relationship in North Carolina with a man seven years her senior that began amicably but also ended with physical abuse.
Armed with her knowledge and experience, Ducharme decided it was time for her to help others avoid the escalating chain of events associated with domestic violence.
She completed training for the agency's Domestic Violence Speakers Bureau and is bringing her story as well as information about the availability of services to the community.
This year, she has taken on her most ambitious project yet, organizing a "Cruise for Change" benefit to be held Sept. 25. All proceeds will benefit the Lake Norman office.
Through all her activities, Ducharme's message is strong and straight-forward: "Domestic Violence victims need to realize that they don't deserve this. There are better options. Help is available. It's scary to make that first step, but once you do, you'll feel better."
Ducharme is now a self-described happily married woman who lives in the Lake Norman area.
Firmin-Sellers believes the image delivered by survivors like Ducharme is priceless.
"When a survivor speaks out as Lisa does, it demonstrates to victims and potential victims that help is available and that they need to break the cycle," said Firmin-Sellers.
Firmin-Sellers estimates that as many as 5,000 men and women in the Lake Norman area are being abused, dispelling any suggestions that the "higher quality" lifestyle of the Lake area prevents abusive behavior.
"There is nothing in the national data that indicates domestic violence discriminates. Therefore, our first job is to believe, then support," said Firmin-Sellers.
"We try to help victims understand the cycle of domestic violence, and help them understand that abuse takes many forms - emotional, financial, and physical. We help victims clarify their options, whether they choose to stay or go.
"The process of exiting an abusive relationship is a painful rebirth, since the abuser has taken away the victim's personhood."
The United Family Services office in Cornelius offers long-term counseling to adult victims of domestic violence. Counselors can connect victims to victim advocates, who can help file for a restraining order in court.
The agency also can offer counselors to support children who have witnessed domestic violence.