By Gregg Bragg, The Island Eye News Sr. Staff Writer
There is a simple truth to why abused women stay with their tormentors – they have nowhere else to go. Butch Kennedy is chief executive officer of the Palmetto Hope Network, which serves as an intermediary for women who can’t find or don’t qualify for room at a safe house. Regrettably, his organization isn’t able to respond to 80% of the calls they get from women looking to escape desperate circumstance. As if that weren’t bad enough, leaving – or attempting to leave – is when 50% of injuries and 75% of domestic homicides occur. Given that South Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for such homicides, almost double the national average, Kennedy just about everyone who’s anyone in the Lowcountry feel it’s vital the fifth annual Hope Walk goes forward on Sept. 19, even if it’s virtual.
The Hope Walk has gained momentum in the past four years and seemed to be catching its stride until the pandemic came along. “Taking the stroll” across the Ravenel Bridge, as Kennedy has come to call it, is now more a rite of passage for local celebrities and elected officials than a simple fundraiser. There will still be a handful of people actually walking the bridge, but the idea is for everyone to walk their own neighborhood between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m., then meet up for a virtual event emceed by WCBD News 2 TV’s Octavia Mitchell, who anchors the local NBC programs “News 2 Today” and “News 2 Midday.”
Although the speakers are still to be announced, the current list of registered participants provides a cornucopia to select from. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg; J.A. Moore; U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham; State Sen. Marlon Kimpson; State Rep. Wendell Gilliard; Becky Callahan of Safe Harbor; Kristin Dubrowski of Hopeful Horizons; Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds; Savanah Johnson; Kadasha Jenkins; and Cey’lon Grant will be there. They all agree it’s more important than ever to take the stroll. Cooped up because of COVID-19 means being cooped up with your oppressor, too, for some.
“Once again, I’m asking my community to help me help them. In light of COVID -19, domestic violence has increased in our community. This year our victims still need your support. This year you can purchase our T-shirt and our COVID-19 face mask. A handful of people will still walk across the Ravenel Bridge on the 19th of September. We’re asking you to join us by walking in your communities in support of victims of domestic violence,” said Kennedy, who has spent a good part of his life making his community better.
Kennedy attended Eau Claire High School, located just outside Columbia. He says there was a shooting in the cafeteria early his freshman year. After graduation, he didn’t enter the lunchroom again until he was an adult, as a chaperone and DJ for a school dance. The area had its fair share of violence, and, after retiring from the Air Force, he did something about it.
Kennedy joined Project Unity, a neighborhood awareness group that works with local churches, community leaders and law enforcement to proactively monitor and report crime. Video cameras were conspicuously installed, and, by working together, residents witnessed a dramatic drop in crime. Kennedy moved to North Charleston in the mid-late 2000s and was alarmed to learn the city was in the top 10 in violent crime statistics. He was even more concerned when it dawned on him that those were national figures, not South Carolina numbers. Planning to duplicate the successes seen in the Midlands, Kennedy founded the Charleston branch of Project Unity and met Sarah Finkelstein at one of the organization’s many conferences.
Finkelstein was an operative with the National Council of Jewish Women, a group that advances “social service, progressive government policies and philanthropy.” According to Kennedy, Finkelstein’s focus was protecting women by discretely leaving business cards with emergency numbers victims could call without alerting their abusers. He remembers Finkelstein telling him, “You can’t solve violence without addressing domestic abuse.”
He took the advice to heart and formed REALMAD (Real Men Against Domestic Violence/Abuse).
Kennedy’s Facebook page can be downright chilling. The few pictures he uses to modify bad behavior will make your heart ache. His more liberal use of statistics such as “Every nine seconds a woman is abused in the United States” or advice like “Fellas! Pay close attention to the way you hurt these females. … so you know how to comfort your daughters later,” is just as sobering.
Interestingly, REALMAD grew out of financial necessity.
Kennedy began by lending out a spare bedroom to victims who came to him or his girlfriend. Word got out about the safe harbor and the spare bedroom turned into providing hotel rooms, and, eventually, to turning people away. Entirely too often, women stay in untenable situations because they have nowhere else to go. REALMAD is working to solve the problem by funneling the donations of sponsors, supporters and participants into a program designed to provide a “leg up” as opposed to a hand out. The organization’s plan can help find secure housing, jobs and even grants or scholarships in some cases. Its success explains why the Hope Walk is more celebration than lament.
These are women who have been through the fire and emerged on the other side stronger than ever. Hope Walk will celebrate these victims turned heroes; participating secures a way out for others in need.
You can join the celebration by visiting projectunity.org or palmettohopenetwork.org and looking for the ticket link or visiting eventbrite.com/e/5th-annual-hope-walk-against-domestic-violence-tickets-91777415721?aff=efbneb&fbclid=IwAR1hOMeI_LBHj-fXyRsx2QwW81xM-R3zofgzvj2y9uI2ndtTvTsstKRlzw8.