When one his students was murdered two years ago, Paul LaVallee of New City knew he wanted to do something to honor that student while helping out others.
He started to work on a video, and now two years later, he's almost done with it and wants to make sure high school students everywhere can see it. And to do that, he's trying to win a $250,000 grant from Pepsi that is voted on by the public with his project titled "Distribute Life Saving DVD on Teen Dating Abuse and Healthy Relations."
The grant program is part of the Pepsi Refresh Project, which awards grants of $5,000, $25,000, $50,000 and $250,000 for good ideas on how to better the world in the areas of health, arts and culture, food and shelter, the planet, neighborhoods and education.
LaVallee's project falls under the education category. He, along with numerous others, is making a video detailing how to prevent abusive teen relationships and warning signs that a relationship might become abusive. He got the idea after Justin Woodward was murdered in Peekskill by his ex-girlfriend, who he was visiting to break up with, on Jan. 3, 2008.
And now the New City man who teaches special education at Henrick Hudson High School in Westchester is looking for help in the form of votes, which can be made twice a day, once online and once via a free text.
"We really believe in this cause, and we know it's a needle in a haystack to win, but it's such an important cause," LaVallee said. "We just want people to see the video because we think it can help them."
With the money from the grant, LaVallee would want to "develop a curriculum to go with DVD that clearly define the warning signs" and "distribute the DVD and curriculum to over 1,000 high schools in the US," according to the project's page on the Pepsi website.
The video is currently about 64 minutes, although LaVallee said he wants to cut it down to about an even hour. The video features teens acting out scenes showing abusive relationships or warning signs leading up to abusive relationships. LaVallee said he used a core group of about 30 students who acted in the scenes, although including extras, some scenes have upwards of 100 teens. Scenes were filmed all over, including the school, around Westchester and even in the Bronx.
"We did it where we thought the scenes would take place in the real world," he said. "If the type of abuse the scene was depicting was at a party, we recreated a party."
LaVallee and the group's realistic take on abusive relationships are a big reason the video has a more in depth look at the subject, according to Alma Evans, the Rockland Family Shelter's director of education. Another reason is that the video doesn't just focus on physical abuse.
"[LaVallee] tried really hard to include different kinds of abuse, other than just physical abuse," Evans said. "There are lots of other ways that abuse happens. There's sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse – like jealousy and isolation— threats, intimidation and destruction of property. Those are the more subtle types of abuse that don't get talked about in videos like this. He highlights some of the more subtle types, which is really important."
Evans also said that LaVallee met frequently with the Rockland Family Shelter, a group working to end all kinds of abuse against women and children. He met with the Shelter's Student Activists Ending Dating Abuse, interviewed people working at the shelter and even screened the video there twice for teens.
"Paul really took the time to learn from the experts in the domestic violence," Evans said, adding that through the meetings, the film really gets into "the analysis of abuse and why it happens."
Another thing LaVallee talked about with the Rockland Family Shelter that is shown in the video is what a healthy relationship should look like.
"We talked a lot about [healthy relationships]," Evans said. "We talked about ways to make it look realistic, something that wouldn't look too cheesy and not based on power and control, like an abusive relationship."
Another way the film is realistic that Evans praised was that some of the scenes feature same sex couples, which she said is rare for videos about teen dating.
LaVallee said he based the script for the video around what he was learning through his meetings with the Rockland Family Shelter, and other agencies dealing with abusive teen relationships. But they weren't the only people to help shape the script.
"What the kids did is they put their twist on it," he said. "I wrote the script, and then they changed language around to make it sound more authentic, and like it was coming from teens. I developed a framework and let the kids play with it."
Some members of the Rockland Family Shelter appear in the video, LaVallee said, giving advice on what's not healthy in relationships. But they aren't the only people appearing the video besides the scenes, which typically run about five minutes.
The video also features musician and former "American Idol" contestant Chris Daughtry, star of MTV's sort of reality show "My Life As Liz" Liz Lee and Sheryl Cates, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Pepsi voting started Aug. 1, and runs through the month. On the project's contest page, LaVallee also uploaded a three minute video titled "2 Reasons Why Teen Dating Violence Must End!" The video contains interviews with family members of Woodward, as well as Salem, N.Y.'s Elizabeth Gabriel Butler, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend on June 5, 2005, when she was just 17-years-old. LaVallee said both instances are brought up in the longer video.
"It's an important piece of the story about how he was moved from his experience as a teacher to get proactive helping with the prevention of teen dating," Evans said. "That's what makes this project particularly special and powerful."