Alaska has the highest rate of domestic violence in the country, said Kenai resident Liisa Blizzard, a statistic she described as embarrassing and needing to be addressed.
Blizzard, a Kenaitze tribal council member, was one of more than 100 people who came out in support for the 5th annual Choose Respect Awareness walk in Kenai Thursday. Organized by the LeeShore Center in Kenai, the event is part of a statewide initiative started in 2009 by Gov. Sean Parnell.
Blizzard said the tribe has an agreement with women’s resource center and have violence against women programs to help victims of domestic abuse. Having the community come together can make victims more comfortable and hopefully reach out for support, she said.
“We try to help people become self-sufficient and get out of a bad situation and take care of their kids,” she said. “We stand united together to let people know we will not accept violence in our community.”
Sunny spring weather delighted the crowd as a police escort led the walkers down Frontage Road from Leif Hansen Memorial Park to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
Once everyone gathered inside the center, Kenaitze chairperson Mary Ann Mills called the audience heroes for standing up against violence.
Tribal members performed the Heartbeat of Mother Earth on a large drum. Pastor John Henry from the Calvary Baptist Church then gave an opening prayer.
The crowd was the largest to participate in the Kenai event, as numbers seems to grow each year, said Cheri Smith, executive director of the LeeShore Center. Last year, 75 people took part in the walk, despite freezing temperatures. Smith said the growing numbers are an encouraging because it takes a social movement to change violence against women.
“Domestic violence and sexual assault are the number one health issue for women,” she said. “Our community is not going to tolerate this anymore.”
One in every two adult women from the Kenai Peninsula has experienced domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to a 2013 survey from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.
The survey, which cited 1,000 Kenai Peninsula Borough women, brings home the message that domestic violence remains a huge problem in the community, Smith said.
The Leeshore Center sees an average of 20 new victims a month, and last year 155 women and children stayed in the center’s emergency shelter, she said.
While domestic violence arrests in the City of Kenai went up from 56 in 2011 to 81 in 2012, the number decreased to 51 in 2013, said Kenai Police Chief Gus Sandahl.
Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, who also substitute teaches at Kenai Central High School, said choosing respect also means teaching respect. When she went to school nobody talked about domestic violence, she said. Today, if parents take the time to educate their children and teach respect for others, she said the statistics would continue to decrease.
“Have your children realize not having respect for others is not appropriate,” she said. “It starts at home. Parents are responsible for teaching that to their children so they never have to witness and become abusers when they get older.”
A representative of Parnell’s administration, Joe Balash, commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, was the guest speaker at the event. Balash thanked everyone for showing courage providing a voice for victims and survivors.
“Do we have the power to end this epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault?” he asked the crowd and they responded with a yes. “Lets live this culture value of respect each and every day and we can change Alaska forever.”
Also in attendance was Michelle Blackwell, special assistant to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Alaska State Troopers Col. James Cockwell and Capt. Andy Greenstreet.
Greenstreet said anytime people can get the word out and open discussion on domestic violence it is a benefit to the community.
In the last five years, domestic violence calls made up about 16 percent of calls responded by troopers in urban areas of the peninsula, he said. In the villages, the number rose to 20 percent
“Violence of any kind is not OK,” he said. “It is a significant concern and we are striving to address the issue and respond appropriately.”
The LeeShore Center invited the guests to fill out a survey to gauge the awareness people had with the Green Dot Violence Prevention Strategy. Kenai is one of six pilot areas for the program as is Bethel, Fairbanks, Homer, and Prince of Wales Island.
From the 1,000 victims who were surveyed they register a red dot on a map, Smith said she would like to replace the red dots with green dots, meaning someone will take a pledge against to help someone and create a safer community.
With April being Sexual Assault Awareness month, starting April 1, she encouraged people to make a pledge with a goal to receive 1,000 green dots. For more information on how to pledge, go to www.greendotalaska.com.
Laurine Vanbuskirk, a member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said she came out in support because it is important to bring the issue of violence to the forefront and create a healthy family life for everyone.
“The emphasis is breaking the cycle and making sure it stops with yourself and don’t keep it in your life and have it affect your children so they make the same mistakes,” she said. “It is tragic enough when it affects one person, but when children are involved, its devastating.”