A Humorous Twist On a Serious Topic

By Adam Gerchick
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eighth-grader Stephen Tully was on his second lap around the track at Potomac Falls High School, his sister by his side, when he and his friend Reid Nebergall, 17, threw in the towel.

"My calves are on fire," said Nebergall, a senior at Dominion High School.

Blame it on the pumps.

On Saturday, Tully, Nebergall and dozens of other male middle- and high-school students from the Sterling area exchanged their sneakers for a pair of Le Dame drag-wear heels. Most of them stumbled nearly a mile around the track while onlookers and companions cheered them on.

The event's lighthearted side notwithstanding, the students were walking to raise awareness of a serious issue: relationship violence.

"Walk a Mile in Her Shoes," based on a national campaign, was organized by a group at Potomac Falls High called Positive Experiences in Educational Relationships (PEER), whose members try to encourage classmates to confront taboo topics such as rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse. The organization has chapters at several Loudoun County public high schools.

Hundreds of participants came to have lunch, listen to student bands and watch as the boys made their way along the outside of the football-field fence and discovered the discomfort of walking -- or, for the brave few, running -- in high heels.

Seated atop a folding table stacked with T-shirts that said "I'm Man Enough," Megan Lyons, 17, a Potomac Falls senior, nodded approvingly despite Tully's and Nebergall's early surrender.

"Some guys didn't want to lower their manliness by coming out here today, and I was kind of like . . . they're increasing their manliness, just personally, seeing them walking around in heels," Lyons said. "Like they can handle it, too."

Several of the students credited Cheryl Mora, who is coordinator of the Loudoun Abused Women's Shelter and who helps train PEER members, for promoting a dialogue about relationship violence in Loudoun. Mora was described in one word by PEER member Taylor Berrett: energy.

Berrett, 16, said Mora has motivated students to become involved "at this event and in just the cause as a whole."

Mora has been working with Loudoun students since September, after spending the previous two years in central Virginia. She said that although the realities of teenage life can be uncomfortable, students are naturally inclined to discuss their lives. "Kids like to talk about their relationships; they've got hormones," she said.

Mora noted that one woman dies every four days on average in Virginia at the hands of someone they know. She said "that's one [statistic] that always hits home pretty hard" with her students.

Nationally, studies suggest that one in three teenagers is in an abusive relationship, Mora said.

She turned to face Tully and Nebergall as they made their way to the parking lot. Separated from them by the track's waist-high chain-link fence, she smiled and waved goodbye.

"We've got people talking," Mora said. "That's all we wanted."

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