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Women's center ads look at darker side of 'love'

The Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh is using love tokens to start a conversation about domestic abuse.

Teddy bears, flowers and poetry of love first draw the eye and ear to the new awareness campaign that began earlier this month.

But, pay closer attention to those traditional displays of affection, and the effect is chilling:

• The teddy bear has a bandaged ear.

• The flowers are arranged in a boxing glove.

• The big pink heart proclaims: "You're Worthless!"

• And the gentle male voice reading his love poem slowly descends into darker sentiments.

The theme is that "all relationships are not as they appear."

Big Picture, a Mt. Lebanon-based marketing and advertising firm created the radio commercials, billboards and Internet banners.

"When I heard the poem, it moved me to tears because it so captured on so many levels what families are dealing with in abusive relationships," Shirl Regan, executive director of the Women's Center says.

The campaign was the organization's response to a survey it conducted to learn if women in suburban areas around Pittsburgh knew where to seek help if they or someone they knew was experiencing domestic abuse.

"We serve over 5,000 women and children a year. But we know there are more out there," Sara Davis Buss, president of the board at the Women's Center and a lawyer at the law firm of Campbell & Levine, says. Phone survey results showed that 38 percent of responders had been or knew someone who had experienced domestic abuse.

But, when asked if they knew where to find help, only 46 percent knew about the Women's Center. Fewer than 40 percent were aware of its shelter services or its hotline.

Part of the challenge is getting people in general and suburban women in particular to talk about or recognize abusive relationships, says A.J. Drexler, a board member and chair of the community outreach committee for the Women's Center.

"There is healthy love, and there is unhealthy love," Buss says.

Abusers don't just blacken eyes or break bones. What's cloaked as love and affection can have a darker side, she says. Abusers often mix love and their need to control, isolate or minimize the one they love, she explains.

"It's not just somebody lashing out ... but (sending) a conflicted message: 'I love you so much. That's why I need to know everywhere you are going and talking to,' " she says.

Even those who want to help or get help for themselves are uncertain where about where to go.

"There are a myriad of reasons suburban women are less likely to reach out for help. But we know it's true," Drexler, who believes the attention-getting ads will help spark conversations or motivate someone to seek help, says. "Part of the campaign is that it has given them permission, given them a voice and let them know they are not alone."

The campaign seems to be doing that already, Drexler says.

The Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh has experienced an upsurge in e-mails and phone calls since the campaign began.

"It's absolutely touching a chord," Drexler says. "The response in these first two weeks have been just amazing. We know we have a big increase in access to the website and more response than we've ever seen."

You can listen to "A Poem for the Woman I Love" at the home page of the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh at www.wcspittsburgh.org . The 24-hour hotline: 412-687-8005.

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