FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – In the cafeteria in Bishop Luers High School, students are learning life lessons.
“It’s a heavy, heavy topic,” Joni Kuhn said.
Joni is well-known in the Bishop Luers community. She worked there for 17 years, most recently as the Assistant Athletic Director. She also founded Heather’s Closet in 2012 to teach young people the warning signs of dating abuse.
“It’s a hard thing to understand, especially in a teenager’s mind, because they’re like, ‘No. That’s not going to happen to us.’ You know, we thought that too,” she said.
Joni’s niece, Heather Norris, was a senior in high school in Indianapolis when she started dating a man a few years older than she was.
“Just like every story, it started all roses, and then it became the isolation and the threats and the control,” Joni said.
Heather went off to college and the controlling boyfriend became worse. The relationship became physically abusive. Heather finally had the courage to press charges after he threw her out of a car. The court hearing got delayed. But, Heather never made it to the hearing. Her boyfriend brutally killed her in 2007. Heather was 20 years old.
“She was full of life and loved animals and was a great athlete,” Joni said. “When tragedy happens with young kids, friends gather and I remember they were all sitting around and I just kept hearing things like, ‘Yeah. I knew he was a bad dude.’ or ‘Yeah. I thought something was up.’ and in my mind I’m just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh.'”
Joni turned her family’s tragedy into an effort to prevent such a crime from happening again. She founded Heather’s Closet.
“Her ability to spread the message and her tenacity and relentlessness to get this movement moving and going and of course we support it 100 percent,” James Huth, Bishop Luers principal and former Athletic Director, said.
Heather’s Closet started by giving girls the tools to detect an unhealthy relationship and a prom dress too.
“When people came to our programs we were giving away free prom dresses too. That’s how we did it for about five years and that’s how the closet part of it came about as well,” Cindy Griffith, who’s helped with Heather’s Closet from the beginning and is now the Educational Specialist for the group, said.
Now there are meetings during the school day and or little events during lunch time. There’s a Purple Out football game for Domestic Violence Awareness in October and an Orange Out basketball game for Teen Dating Violence Awareness in February.
“We had our theater arts program write skits. We’ve done Jeopardy and done little quizzes. We’ve done two PSAs written by our students,” Joni said. “It’s simple things. We had a bell and every nine seconds, I would ring the bell and someone would stand up. Every nine seconds for the whole song and at the end I said that many people were just abused.”
Most recently, students had a contest to write a poem and the winning poems was turned into a song. Click here to hear the song, “These Signs.”
The Heather’s Closet message is working.
“I’ve seen text messages and emails from people, maybe not in high school, but they get to college and that’s where some of this stuff starts to become more apparent, and they’ve written, ‘Hey, because of you, I knew this was a red flag. I knew to get out of this relationship where my friend was being abused. I followed the steps you said and got her in a safe spot,'” David Kuhn, Joni’s husband said.
DeOsha Smith is now the Heather’s Closet moderator.
“As the cheerleader coach, I hear a lot of talk on the bus and in the locker room about their relationships that they’re having and then it goes on to, ‘Well remember that probably wasn’t the best thing’ or they’re telling advice or words they heard from the speakers,” Smith said.
Junior Addie Shank said it’s important to learn the red flags of an abusive relationship.
“Like isolations. Your partner will cut you off from everybody and control and try to take over your social media,” Shank said.
Four years ago, Heather’s Closet expanded to include a second program called Locker Room Leaders to focus on male athletes.
“We are young teens and now with society a lot of stuff happens and it’s good to be able to get help if we need or even if we need someone to talk to, we can go talk to them and get advice and just let them know what’s on our chest,” Senior Brayden McInturff said.
For her efforts in changing the lives, and saving the lives, of young people, Joni’s husband nominated her for WANE 15’s Remarkable Women of Northeast Indiana.
“Her compassion for people,” Griffith said. “Just being a friend and listening. She’s remarkable all the time.”
“I came from a mother who taught to speak kindly. You have a heart. You have a voice. Be a friend,” Joni said. “I just want to change one day at a time, one event at a time and just make things a little better and easier for who’s coming up.”
Joni hopes to get the Heather’s Closet curriculum in other schools too. While she’s retired from Bishop Luers and officially running Heather’s Closet, she’s still active with the group and school. Her seven grandkids also now keep her busy.
Every Wednesday in March, WANE 15 will feature one of the four Remarkable Women of Northeast Indiana finalists on First News from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. The winner will be announced on March 29 live on the news at noon.