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In Hernando, 12-year-old domestic violence victim raises money for center that helped her

Published Sep. 27, 2012

SPRING HILL

Haley Greene didn't hear it happen.

Then 7 years old, she was asleep in her bedroom when, authorities say, her dad came home one night and beat her mother badly enough that she eventually required surgery.

Her mom called her the next day from the hospital to tell her about the injuries — the swollen eye, the arm that was black from her fingertips to her shoulder.

But the situation didn't quite set in until her mother walked through the door when she returned home.

"I just started crying uncontrollably," said Haley, now 12.

"It was …," she said, pausing. "I don't really know how to describe how I was feeling. Sickening. I was upset."

The incident happened in December 2007, just before Christmas. It was just the beginning of many hurdles for Haley and her mother.

There were hospital visits and restraining orders. A sense of alienation and the feeling of never being safe. A difficult court trial, where they watched as the man accused of beating Jennifer Paolino was acquitted by a jury.

But they didn't go through it alone.

With them throughout the ordeal was the Dawn Center of Hernando County.

Now, Haley, a seventh-grader at Gulf Coast Academy in Spring Hill, is using a school project to assist the Spring Hill domestic violence shelter that helped her and her mother so much.

• • •

Seventh-graders at Gulf Coast are required to do community service projects.

They "pay it forward" through fundraising or volunteering to help those in need, said Nevin Siefert II, Gulf Coast's director of administration.

"What we intend to do is allow the students to reach out to the less fortunate citizens in Hernando County and make a difference," Siefert said of the 7-year-old effort.

He calls it putting the "social" back in "social studies."

This year, each of the school's 32 seventh-graders chose an organization to help. At a minimum, they do 24 hours of volunteering or raise $100. In the past, some students have gone far beyond that.

One student raised $5,000 for disabled veterans, Siefert said.

"The project has created a culture of kindness and caring," he said. "Students tend to get involved and carry that involvement on."

• • •

Haley chose to host a dance party for her project. She's calling it Step It Forward, and it will take place Friday night at Pristine Place.

Everything she raises will go to the Dawn Center.

"Haley's is a special project, given her family history," Siefert said. "It's just a special project. She has risen to the challenge of this event and become a better person and a better student as a result of it."

The Dawn Center is delighted by the act of generosity.

"I thought it was really, really incredible because she's so young," said Dawn Center executive director Shannon Sokolowski. "This is such a sophisticated issue.

"I think this is going to be really inspiring for other survivors who hear about this," Sokolowski added.

Haley said she already has raised $500 and gathered a number of items the Dawn Center desperately needs, such as diapers and toiletries.

It still needs more.

"We're in tremendous need for all of those things," Sokolowski said.

• • •

The Dawn Center was there for Haley and her mother.

"We figured we both needed someone to talk to at that point," said Paolino.

The center gave them a safety plan, provided counseling and helped them through the trial.

Abuse victims are often weighed down with self-doubt, Paolino said. The domestic violence shelter built up their confidence and provided them with a sense of community.

Paolino adopted a mantra.

"We're not victims," she often repeats. "We're victorious."

Dawn Center workers helped Haley process difficult feelings and emotions. They were there for her, Haley said.

In a letter asking Hernando residents to support the dance, she says she now appreciates and understands the value of what the Dawn Center did for her family's safety and recovery.

"They handled it and took it like they should have," she said. "They didn't take it casually or anything. They actually helped you and supported you."

Now she wants to return the favor.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432.

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