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An old charity finds hope in a new generation

A high school student who has spent his whole life trying to 'change the conversation' about domestic violence upstaged Halle Berry and Jamie Foxx at this weekend's fundraiser.

April 19, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • Actress Halle Berry and Bryson Rouzan-Thomas at the 2011 Jenesse event at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Rouzan-Thomas, a 17-year-old Loyola High senior, was given the Trailblazer of Hope award for his work toward stopping relationship violence.
Actress Halle Berry and Bryson Rouzan-Thomas at the 2011 Jenesse event… (David Livingston / Getty…)

I made a mistake

Those were apparently the last words of a despondent young mother in New York who piled her four children into the minivan and drove off a bridge into the Hudson River.

Lashonda Armstrong drowned along with three of her children — an 11-month-old daughter and 2-year-old and 5-year-old sons. According to her 10-year-old son, who escaped through a van window, she had second thoughts the minute the van plunged into the river. But by then, of course, it was too late.

As the car hurtled into the water, Armstrong climbed into the back seat, took her children in her arms and prepared to die, her son told a woman who rescued him. The last words he heard his mother say were "Oh my God, I made a mistake."

Rescuers found the bodies in the sunken minivan an hour later.

We don't know yet what led Armstrong on her family suicide mission. Friends said she was frustrated, angry, tired; always toting the kids around — a baby on her hip, one at her side, another in her arms. Family members reported hearing "tussling in the background" in a telephone call just before she loaded her family in the car and took off. Police said she and the children's father had a history of "domestic problems."

What she didn't have, at that moment at least, was hope that things were going to get better.

::

I couldn't help thinking about that mother this weekend, as I celebrated a series of gala fundraisers for South Los Angeles' oldest domestic violence program. There are plenty of Lashonda Armstrongs in Los Angeles. And they need what programs like the Jenesse Center offer.

I've been a fan of Jenesse since it was launched 30 years ago by five women who'd experienced domestic violence. It began as a bare-bones shelter and tiny thrift shop with a leaky roof, on 81st and Broadway. Now it's a $3-million operation with programs scattered across South Los Angeles and Halle Berry as its biggest booster.

Berry came to Jenesse 10 years ago to do community service for a traffic incident. It has been her mission since; she doesn't just sing its praises in public but privately visits women and children to let them know "you can survive this." She was also honored this weekend for enlisting a design team to renovate and decorate shelter apartments.

They want to take the sting out of shelter living.

"We hear so many woman say 'I can't leave. I've worked too hard for what I have; I'm not going to start over.' We can't have that be a reason to stay in an abusive relationship," said Jenesse Director Karen Earl. "Our families deserve nice things, comfort, the understanding that someone cares. That helps empower them to leave. That's the first step toward building a new life."

::

There were plenty of celebrities on hand at last weekend's fundraiser for the Jenesse Center's Domestic Violence Intervention Program. That's one of the perks of hosting a charity gala in Los Angeles.

That's also why it was so delightful to discover that the star of the show was a 17-year-old Loyola High School senior who aims to "change the conversation" about relationship violence.

Bryson Rouzan-Thomas got a standing ovation from the crowd at the Beverly Hills Hotel for his Trailblazer of Hope award. He also got a hug from Berry and a shout-out from emcee Jamie Foxx, who reminded us that Bryson is trying to rescue families from violence "at an age when most young men are just trying to figure out what songs to load on their iPod."

My shout-out goes to his mom for that. Sherron Rouzan, a counselor at West Los Angeles College, has been a Jenesse volunteer for 20 years, since before Bryson and his older brother Brandon were born. When I asked Bryson what motivated him, he shrugged, then pointed to his mother. "She's been doing this as long as I can remember. So I've been involved all my life."

As a child, he organized book drives and holiday parties for children whose lives were disrupted by abuse. For his senior project at Loyola, he and a group of classmates raised money and renovated an apartment in one of Jenesse's transitional housing units. He brought together more than 100 students from around the city for a forum on dating violence. And he's co-founder of a group called The Change that is spreading the word via YouTube videos.

"It's not just about violence," he said, "but building a healthy relationship." For so long, abuse in relationships was cloaked in silence. "That has to change with my generation," he said. "You have to be brave enough to tell your friends 'Hey, that's not OK.' "

Two years ago, rapper Chris Brown's attack on his then-girlfriend Rihanna brought the conversation about domestic abuse to the TMZ generation. But what was shocking then, and now, is how many young women blamed Rihanna. "She must have done something to provoke him," was a theme of online message boards.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. According to national surveys, 40% of teenage girls say they have been abused or know someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.

Earl deals with that reality daily and welcomes this new wave of warriors. "I can remember looking out at Bryson and that crowd of teenagers and I saw hope," she said. "It's not just a bunch of women in pink trying to change things.… This generation won't see things the way ours did."

And an overwhelmed mother might be able to look at her friends and find the kind of support she needs.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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