By Marilyn Stewart
In the spotlight or out, NFL players' wives have learned a lot about life. For some, that includes domestic violence. A group of 19 from the Off the Field NFL Players' Wives Association shared their life experiences with New Orleans teens in a pre-Super Bowl event to stop domestic violence, hosted by the New Orleans Family Justice Center.
Mike McKenzie, former Saint player. His wife, Rachel McKenzie is standing beside him. They are making a presentation to Mary Claire Landry, executive director of Family Justice Center.
Mike McKenzie, former New Orleans Saints cornerback, joined his wife, Rachel, and NFL wives in encouraging teens to build healthy relationships and set educational goals.
Twenty teens attended. The event officially kicked-off Speak Up, an initiative of the Family Justice Center, 701 Loyola Ave., to address safe-date practices and provide a holistic approach to building healthy relationships.
The event comes in the wake of the murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chief linebacker Jovan Belcher. February is designated Teen Violence Awareness Month.
One wife told the group she took in a niece to protect her and break a cycle of abuse in the family.
"They were upfront. They didn't sugar coat anything," said Samuel Hargro, 17, St. Augustine High School.
Speak Up, made possible by a $13,000 grant from the Verizon Wireless Foundation, will include an after-school forum where participants will design the program's name and logo and build a social media network for support.
On completion, participants in the Speak Up initiative will take their training back into their high schools by leading school assemblies and other events. Martin Luther King Jr., Xavier Prep, St. Augustine, McDonough 35 Prep, and other area high schools were represented at the pre-Super Bowl event.
"A lot of teenage girls don't know what to do if they are in a predicament," said Ayana Lindsey, 16, Xavier Prep. "They wouldn't know how to leave."
The Family Justice Center is operated by the New Orleans Family Justice Alliance, a non profit organization, and provides services to survivors of family violence, child abuse, sexual assault and stalking.
Stopping abuse before it happens is the focus of the Speak Up initiative, Jennifer Taylor, Family Justice Center service coordinator, said.
"We want to prevent violence rather than one day helping victims find the resources to get out," Taylor said. "We want them to know it's okay to speak up when a girl is being disrespected."
Privilege Kudina, a Zimbabwe immigrant who suffered nine years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, was helped by the Family Justice Center and is now a spokesperson for the group.
Louisiana led the nation in the number of women murdered by men in 2008. New Orleans police received more than 11,000 domestic violence calls through 911 in 2011.
Rachel McKenzie was the hostess at the Speak Up kick-off. Mike and Rachel McKenzie, founders of the 34 Ways Foundation, presented the teens with a copy of the recently released book coauthored by Mike McKenzie and chef Carolyn Shelton, "Young, Gifted and Classy—34 Ways to be a Lady or Gentleman."
"[Mike and Rachel McKenzie] are a true testament to a healthy relationship," Hargro said.
The Family Justice Center and the 34 Ways Foundations were benefactors of another pre-Super Bowl event, a fashion show sponsored by the Off the Field NFL Players' Wives Association.
The Speak Up kick-off highlighted the importance of education and building a future beginning now.
Mike McKenzie told the group he is the son of Trinidad-Tobago immigrants who was forced to take the college-board entrance exam eleven times before making an adequate score because he didn't take school seriously.
"He said, 'It takes hard work. Success may not come when you want it, but it always comes at the right time," Hargro said.
Karrien Bennett, 13, McDonough 35 Prep, said she was inspired by the NFL wife who told of her work with children in Africa.
Off the Field NFL Players' Wives Association supports the Beyond the Game School in Swaziland, Africa promoting education, entrepreneurship and athleticism, as well as foundations supporting medical research, children's hospitals, the homeless community, and more.
"Chase your dream, not a paycheck, or in the end you'll be disappointed" is what one wife told the group, Hargro said.
Mary Claire Landry, executive director of the Family Justice Center, said the NFL wives made the youth "feel like celebrities."
Foir information on the Family Justice Center, call 504.592.4005.