By Gracie Bonds Staples
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:23 p.m. Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Elizabeth Cardenas watched her friend’s boyfriend verbally and physically abuse her for two years.

It was one of the most difficult times in her life, Cardenas said.

“She didn’t know how to get out and I didn’t know how to help her,” said Cardenas.

The experience motivated the 17-year-old Tri-Cities High School senior to join other metro Atlanta teens for Wednesday’s launch of Start Strong Atlanta, a program aimed at stopping teen dating violence and abuse.

The launch coincides with Domestic Violence Awareness Month and is part of a national initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Hopefully if we’re successful Domestic Violence Month will become a thing of the past,” said Dr. Melissa Kottke, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Jane Fonda Center.

The Fonda Center is one of 11 community organizations nationwide chosen to receive $1 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national Start Strong initiative.

The healthy dating awareness program is the largest national public health initiative ever funded that is aimed at 11-to-14-year-olds.

“What’s more alarming is dating violence occurs at an even younger age,” said Fonda, founder of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.

Marie Mitchell, director of the program, said one in six high school students in Georgia report having been hit, slapped or physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year.

“That’s higher than the national rate, which is one in 10,” said Mitchell.

After her friend’s mother intervened, Cardenas said the girl finally broke up with her boyfriend and has since moved away.

Start Strong Atlanta, will target an estimated 2,000 seventh graders in Atlanta public schools, Mitchell said. More teenagers will be reached through the program’s community partners, which include Grady Health System and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

“We hope to reach over 10,000 youths over the next four years,” said Mitchell.

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