LaGRANGE — Deborah Dunn is a successful and popular assistant principal at one of Troup County’s middle schools.
She is also, in her words, a stage four breast cancer “over-comer” after being diagnosed two years ago with the disease.
But this would be the second time Dunn can call herself a survivor. She has carried around a dark secret for many years, something only a few people knew about it — until Tuesday night.
For the first time, on a small stage in Lafayette Square in front of dozens of people, Dunn shared her story about being a victim of abuse during the annual Harmony House domestic violence awareness ceremony.
“It was my first husband,” she explained. “I was in my 20s and he was 12 years older than me. There was a lot of mental control … control with my family and friends … and then we fought. I guess I surprised him because when he hit me, I hit him back.”
Dunn said neighbors called the police, but despite their issues, she stayed with him — especially after she found out she was pregnant.
But when their son was born with a birth defect and required treatment at an Atlanta hospital, Dunn moved in with her parents in Hogansville while her husband remained in Albany where they were living at the time. It was during that time Dunn said she started going back to church.
“My prayer was, ‘Change him or let him leave,’” she said, speaking about her first husband. “He left us.”
Dunn said she knows that prayer may have saved her life, and it definitely changed it for the better.
Two years later Dunn met her second husband. They have been married for 19 years and, according to Dunn, he has nursed her back to health through her battle with cancer.
“I really just want to encourage women and victims, there is life after domestic violence,” she said. “God has something bigger and better planned for you.”
During her remarks she also addressed the many teenagers in the crowd.
“I feel like I need to talk to you all too,” she said. “I know you all go through altercations with your boyfriends or girlfriends, but you don’t label it as domestic violence … You need to speak up for yourself … and for your friends.”
Her message hit straight home with students from the Troup County High School Choir. They lifted up their voices to sing “Your Song” by Elton John among other melodies at the ceremony. Their presence at the event was a touching tribute to Bailey Burtron and Iiaonna Green, who were both members of the group during their respective years at the school.
Burtron’s cousin and Green’s best friend, Dane Knopp, 18, sang a solo and then stood up and bravely told the crowd how domestic violence affected his family since that fateful day on Jan. 31.
That is when Troup County sheriff’s deputies found the bodies of Knopp’s extended family and friend in their Woodstream Trail home, all killed by Christie Lee’s husband, Thomas Lee.
“It’s been rough. I think about them daily,” said Knopp. “But my family and I have gotten closer, and that closeness has helped us cope since then.”
Knopp hopes to use his voice, and his story, to help others make the choice not to remain silent about domestic violence any longer.
“I hope that everyone realizes that they have a choice to speak up about it,” he explained. “I am using my story as a precautionary tale, I guess. … People can be brave and get out of situations if they need to. … I want to challenge you to speak up because you may never get the chance to do it again.”
It was a sentiment also echoed by Rose Jackson. Her daughter, Courtney Jackson, 22, was shot and killed by her boyfriend Kendell Robinson, 26, in a home off Roanoke Road on Jan. 14.
“It’s time to speak out against domestic violence,” she told the crowd. “Let’s come together as a community. I will not stop speaking about it. I will not shut up … I’m going to fight against domestic violence. It’s time for it to stop.
“I got a phone call on my job that my daughter died,” she continued. “Who’s going to get the next call?”
As dusk fell, flames from 90 candles gently blew in a small breeze as the names of 90 people — all victims of domestic violence in the state of Georgia within the past 12 months — were read out loud.
Then came the names of those who lost their lives in our community: Tammie Beasley, Courtney Jackson, Christie Lee, William Burtron, Sheila Burtron, Bailey Burtron and Iiaonna Green. As each name was read, family members or close friends of the victims released a purple balloon in their honor.
As folks bowed their heads in silent prayer to remember those who lost their lives, the sound of police sirens eerily resonated in the background.
It seemed to serve as a somber reminder there were still more men and women out there who were silently suffering at the hands of an abuser, hoping one day to escape before it’s too late.
“No one deserves to be abused,” said Harmony House executive director Michele Bedingfield. “Each one of us needs to step up, become more informed and more aware. … It’s time for us to change the conversation and start talking about domestic violence instead of hiding it.”
Melanie Ruberti is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. She may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.