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VOL. 127 | NO. 47 | Thursday, March 8, 2012

Speaking Out

Actor-turned-activist brings message to YWCA benefit

By Aisling Maki

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For its 15th annual benefit luncheon Wednesday, March 7, the YWCA of Greater Memphis hosted its first ever male speaker – actor-turned-activist and best-selling author Victor Rivas Rivers – who traveled to the Bluff City to speak out against domestic violence.

Former NFL player and actor Victor Rivas Rivers speaks with emcee Valerie Calhoun of Fox 13 and Jackie Williams, YWCA executive director, before delivering the keynote speech at the YWCA luncheon.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)


The YWCA of Greater Memphis’ largest annual fundraiser was held at the Memphis Marriott East, 2625 Thousand Oaks Blvd.

“People ask me why I speak on the issue,” Rivers said. “Well, it’s because I lived it. I grew up in a home where domestic violence and child abuse took place on a level of torture, and when I say that, I’m not exaggerating. I was beaten, tortured, burned, tied up, locked in closets and hammered.”

Rivers, a former football player for Florida State University and the Miami Dolphins, found success as a film and television actor, frequently playing the role of villain. His film credits include “Amistad,” “Havana” with Robert Redford and “The Mask of Zorro,” in which he played Antonio Banderas’ ill-fated brother. His TV credits include “CSI Miami,” “Star Trek” and “Miami Vice.”

But before the Cuban-born, U.S.-raised Rivers found success on the football field and in Hollywood, he, along with his mother and siblings, endured horrific domestic violence at the hands of his father.

As a pre-teen, Rivers begged the authorities for help, even going to the police station at age 12 and removing his clothes to show the police his burns, bruises and welts. And while the police were horrified by what they saw, they told the young Rivers that his problem was “a private family matter,” a term he later used as the title of his New York Times bestselling memoir.

“This was 40 years ago, so there were no shelters, hotlines, or YWCAs of Greater Memphis for my family to turn to,” Rivers said. “We hear the saying that it takes a village to raise a child; well, I’m that child. I had to fight my father physically, I left the house and was living on the streets, and my high school took me in and gave me seven homes to live in. I was an unofficial foster child. There was no paperwork.”

Rivers, who had been a gang member, later became the student body president and went on to receive a full scholarship to Florida State, noting that he visited the University of Memphis as a recruit.

Participants of the YWCA annual luncheon listen to former NFL player and actor Victor Rivas Rivers deliver the keynote speech. Rivers witnessed his mother endure torture - and he himself was a victim - at the hands of his father. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Today, having broken the cycle of violence, Rivers, who is a husband and the father of a teenage son, frequently speaks out about the most under-reported crime in the U.S.

“I’ve spoken at several YWCAs around the country, so I first of all I want to applaud them for the incredible work that they’re doing,” he said. “Not only is it a multi-faceted program, but it’s a life-saving program – dealing with violence within relationships and dealing with the children and how to give them skills to cope when there is a crisis.”

The YWCA of Greater Memphis provides emergency shelter to women and children escaping abuse. The nonprofit provides a 24-hour domestic violence crisis hotline; court advocacy to help individuals navigate the legal system; and immigrant women’s services for victims facing additional barriers to resources because of language or culture.

“People from other countries need to know that there’s a program out there to help,” said Elizabeth Shelley, YWCA of Greater Memphis community education coordinator and advocate for immigrant women. “We’re able to help everyone. … I think it’s important for people from any culture to realize the effect domestic violence has on children. It’s so easy to be in denial.”

YWCA of Greater Memphis executive director Jacquelyn Williams said it’s estimated one out of three women in the Memphis area are victims of domestic abuse. But she said that figure is based on women who report incidences; it’s likely closer to 50 percent of all women.

“And domestic violence is not just a woman’s issue it’s a family issue,” Williams said. “And having this luncheon today helps us raise funds for our shelter for victims of domestic violence.”

Domestic violence survivor Shirley Godwin also spoke at Wednesday’s event. She was so terrified during her marriage that she nearly resorted to poisoning her husband. Instead she fled with her daughter and found help at the YWCA of Greater Memphis.

Williams said the nonprofit is in need of volunteers to fill a variety of roles, from court advocates to job skills teachers.

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