CLEARWATER — In August 2006, Marie Piard drove 13 hours straight from the Atlanta area to Clearwater with her three children to escape an abusive husband and find sanctuary.
She found it at the Haven of RCS.
"The Haven fed us, clothed us, gave us support mentally and spiritually," Piard said Thursday at the Faces of Domestic Violence Awareness Luncheon. "They helped every way they could."
The Haven of RCS or Religious Community Services sponsors the luncheon each year during Domestic Violence Awareness Month to help community leaders and residents understand the severity of the problem.
This year's event took place at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and drew a crowd of about 250.
The Haven helped Piard and her children Jamaine, 12, Vanessa, 10, and Andy Derogene, 6, escape a life of fear and pain.
Piard's story — complete with a death threat from a gun-wielding now ex-husband and as much suspense as a movie for the big screen — isn't that unusual.
The Haven's 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline took 7,000 calls last year from people needing immediate help to escape danger at the hands of a loved one.
"If 7,000 people in north Pinellas County are calling for help, then this is an epidemic," said Duggan Cooley, president and CEO of RCS. "Last year, eight people died as a result of domestic violence. Eight is too many, even one is too many."
In addition to Piard, the keynote speaker was Lissette Campos, community affairs director for ABC Action News.
"People think in order to be a great advocate you must be a victim of domestic violence," Campos said. "That gives the rest of us a cop out. … Each of us has a role to play."
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Piard, 33, left her abusive husband five times before she took off for good. After spending a month in a Georgia domestic violence safe house, she went home one more time so her husband could see his children. She came close to never seeing those children again.
"He called and called," Piard said. "I felt bad because he hadn't seen the kids in a month. So I went home.
"He said he needed to talk with me and I went into the bedroom. He begged me to come back. I told him no, said I was tired. …When he put his arm around my shoulders, I said I had to leave and he put me in a headlock."
She passed out. When she woke up, she insisted on leaving.
But her husband tied her up with cable and strapped her feet together with a belt. He dragged her around, then put her on the bed and sat atop her.
"He said, 'You're not going to leave me,' " Piard said. "He said, 'I will kill you today.'
"I saw the five bullets in the gun. He told me, 'I'll call the kids and kill them in front of you, kill you, then myself.' He poured cold water over me to get me moving and when I did, he knocked me on the floor. I saw his eyes, they were so red."
When he asked her again if she would stay, she conceded.
"I told him yes, I'd stay," said Piard. "That we'd be fine. I had to. I saw those five bullets. Then, he calmed down and reached out to give me a hug."
Piard spent the night. The five ate pizza together like a family.
But the next morning, she told her husband she had to get her belongings from the shelter. He made her take his car. He let her bring their sons along. He kept their daughter.
"I had faith," Piard said. "I left my daughter knowing I'd come back for her. I took off with my two sons and drove straight to the police station."
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With police help, she got her daughter back. Then she told Georgia advocates she'd go anywhere to get away.
The Haven of RCS had room and she drove the entire way crying. Now, she says she has no tears left. She knew it was time to change, to get her mind set on a positive life and future.
"Now I work as a full-time ophthalmology technician and I'm going to nursing school at St. Petersburg College at night," she said in an interview before the talk.
On April 29, she bought a house in Dunedin through Habitat for Humanity.
"I'm proud of myself," she said. "I take my kids to school, work, pick up my kids and three days a week, take them to my mom. Thank God for my mom. I attend school until 10:30 at night and sometimes I'm at the table studying until 2:30 in the morning. But I manage it all because I know where I've come from."