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Lynn resident Rob Demeo knows all too well the role that substance abuse can play in domestic violence incidents.
In April 2018, his mother, Joan Demeo, was killed by her drunk boyfriend, who had bludgeoned her to death with a barbell.
Joan was living in Bradenton, Florida, at the time and kept silent about her abusive relationship until it was too late. Her best friend went to check on her during her lunch break and found her wrapped in a blanket with her head caved in from the attack, Rob said.
Rob, 33, recalls the date of his mother’s murder without hesitation — April 13, 2018 — which happened to be her boyfriend, Barak Pozas’ birthday. On that date, Pozas had returned home after drinking at a local bar and became enraged after Joan had asked him to leave. She had come to check on him at noon and found him intoxicated, he said.
Rob said his mother, 60, had been abused by his father as well, and kept quiet for years while she was being abused by her boyfriend.
“She lived in silence and didn’t tell anybody,” Rob said. “My mom was too afraid to ask for help with her relationship issues.”
Rob said he could not see what was going on with his mother, who he considered to be his best friend, when she lived nearby because he was struggling with heroin addiction. His mother eventually moved to Florida because she couldn’t deal with his addiction, he said.
On Nov. 7, Rob, now clean and sober, will join other domestic violence survivors who are walking in the fourth annual Empowerment Fashion and Trunk Show, which is hosted by the Love Life Now Foundation, Inc., an Avon-based organization that promotes year-round awareness about domestic violence through various initiatives.
The models who take part in the fashion show, which is being held virtually this year, are all domestic violence survivors like Demeo, who got involved with the organization after his mother’s death.
“I’ve been part of the show for the past two years to kind of be my mother’s voice (and) to take a stance as a man,” Rob said. “I don’t want anyone out there to sit in silence like my mother did before they end up dead.”
At around the same time, Rob got involved with Sunrise Detox, where he now works as an outreach coordinator. Through his work with the medical detox center, which is located in Millbury, he helps people as they get off of alcohol and other substances. He is also focused on the connection between domestic violence and alcohol.
At one point during his mother’s murder trial, Pozas told the court he would not have committed the homicide if he was sober, Rob said.
“I’ve heard that a lot with domestic violence issues,” Rob said, noting how people often cite alcohol and drugs as the reason for their actions.
The jury wasn’t convinced. Pozas is serving a life sentence in prison for a murder conviction, Rob said.
“It could have been avoided if neighbors had alerted anyone that my mom had been in trouble,” Rob said. “(They had) heard arguing earlier. If you see something, say something.”
Through his involvement with the annual fashion show, Rob wants to show people that it’s not OK to hurt anyone, he said.
“The idea was that survivors of abuse would come out and walk their truth, (to) show themselves and others that they are not what happened to them,” said Lovern Gordon, president and founder of the Love Life Now Foundation. “(It’s about) feeling good about themselves with people there to support them.”
Gordon said the experience is often difficult for models at first. Backstage, the survivors are getting “glammed up” for their appearances, but some of them still clam up when it’s their turn to walk, she said.
“It can be pretty nerve-wracking, but once they get out (they) get an amazing amount of applause and feel like it was such a rush,” said Gordon. “(They) feel empowered that they did it. Audience members are there to support them. It feels so good. There’s really nothing to compare it to, how empowered they look and feel.”
In addition to the anxiety that comes with walking across the stage in front of a crowd of people, the show is also a coming out of sorts for the models. For some, the show will be the first time they are sharing that they are victims of domestic violence, which can be stressful, Gordon said.
Gordon is familiar with the feeling, as she is also a victim of domestic violence. A Trinidad native who came to the United States in 1993, Gordon saw her father brutally abuse her mother for 15 years while she was growing up.
“Children who witness abuse are at a greater risk of growing up and becoming an abuser or victim,” said Gordon, explaining that was the case for her as well.
At 21, while she was a student at Suffolk University, Gordon fell into an abusive relationship. When the first slap came, she was quick to accept the man’s apology, she said.
“Here I was accepting this behavior because it was normalized for me,” said Gordon. “When he said he was sorry, I believed he would change. I minimized the slap — I said it wasn’t that bad. (I told myself it) certainly wasn’t at the level my mother experienced and stayed in that relationship for two years.
“I filed a restraining order and never looked back. That thankfully kept him away. But others don’t get that chance.”
Ten years after she escaped the relationship, Gordon participated in two beauty pageants and ended up winning both. Drawing from her own experience, she had picked domestic violence as her platform.
Gordon decided she wanted to continue that work and started the Love Life Now Foundation a year later, in 2011. The annual fashion show raises funds for the organization’s year-round awareness initiative, which aims to provide support for victims who are trying to leave an abusive relationship.
The funds are used to help victims secure transportation and replace clothes they may have had to leave behind as they were fleeing their homes, Gordon said. The funds are also used to put victims on the verge of homelessness in a motel for a few nights so they can make calls to get themselves set up in a shelter, she said.
Two of the models in this year’s show, including Demeo, are from the North Shore. Due to COVID-19, the number of models has been reduced to six. In past years, 10 to 12 survivors — who come from the North Shore, South Shore and Boston — have taken part.
“One woman comes from as far as the Cape area, so it’s a mix,” said Gordon. “Survivors, people experiencing this issue — they’re everywhere, all walks of life. (The event) gives people a frontline view of who this issue affects.”
Lynn resident Rob Demeo is a recovering addict who is working to bridge the gap between substance abuse and domestic violence through his outreach work at sober houses. Next month, Demeo will take part in a fashion show that features models who have been victims of domestic violence. (Olivia Falcigno)
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