Julia M. Dendinger| News-Bulletin photo

Maserati Swanagan Valencia Shelter Services’ education and outreach advocate will be facilitating a 10-week program called “Safe Dates” to local teens to help them learn about healthy dating relationships.

Relationships — whether friends, romantic partners or even family — are something everyone experiences. The hope is those relations will be healthy, nurturing and supportive, but the fact is some of them become abusive and toxic.

To help prevent the cycle of violence and abusive relationships, Valencia Shelter Services’ education and outreach advocate, Maserati Swanagan, is facilitating Safe Dates sessions, a 10-week program focusing on preventing dating violence among teens.

While the curriculum focuses on healthy dating, Swanagan said the sessions will also help youth and teens learn about healthy relationships as a whole.

“We’ll talk about being good friends, how to interact better with parents,” Swanagan said. “I like a holistic approach, and we really need to talk about all different types of relationships in order to understand what healthy dating relationships are.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photos Brissa Sotelo, Valencia Shelter Services’ victim services coordinator, and Maserati Swanagan, VSS’s education and outreach advocate, work together to provide anti-violence education, including the “Safe Dates” program to community teens.

When Swanagan was growing up, she would sometimes question her own behavior in her friendships and with her dating partners.

“I was like, ‘Why will I do certain things to my dating partner that I would never say or do to my friend? Why is that different? Why am I not giving the same respect to the person I’m dating as I would give to my friends?’” she said.

Learning about red flags in relationships is a two-way street, she said. Not only are the teens guided in how to recognize violence and abuse directed at them, but to also recognize when they are being the unhealthy partner.

“There were a lot of things I believed (about dating and relationships) because I didn’t have an adult like me to say, ‘Hey, actually, this is how it really is,’” Swanagan said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about being that adult for teens. There’s so much I would have known if I had somebody like me.”

The Safe Date sessions are from 3:30-4:30 p.m., every Monday for 10 weeks, starting Monday, Oct. 4, at the Belen Public Library, 333 Becker Ave.

The sessions are appropriate for teens ages 13-18, she said, and are open to any teens interested. Teens are welcome to join the program at any point in the 10-week period.

“When we do anti-violence education in an appropriate fashion, we want to make sure you are covering all identities, all races, all genders,” she said.

With a background in anti-violence education, Swanagan is a big proponent of starting early in teaching youth what are caring relationships, what is dating abuse, how to help friends who are in unhealthy relationships.

“A lot of it is how to communicate and set boundaries,” she said. “To take part, you don’t necessarily have to be someone who has survived dating violence. You can be just starting to date or even just thinking about dating.”

Swanagan and Brissa Sotelo, the VSS victim services coordinator, have offered the Safe Dates program to several local schools, and any middle or high school or community organization can request the service.

While teens younger than 18 will need parental permission to attend the sessions, parents won’t be present during the presentation, Swanagan said.

“It’s supposed to be a safer space for them, but if there is anything that comes up that we feel like is important that the parent knows, of course we will let the parent know,” she said.

Swanagan said having anti-violation education programs available for teens in a community helps prevent the pipeline to cyclical, often generational, violence.

“We want to prevent that pipeline before they ever need our victim services, so they know what to look for,” she said. “Or, if you do become a victim, you know what to call it and who you can talk to about it. It’s really terrible whenever you experience something like that and you have to sit with it alone.”

Pop culture representations of relationships can be very misleading for youths, Swanagan said.

“They want to emulate that because that’s what they think an adult relationship is. It’s not really a representation of healthy relationships because you see people trying to make their partner a mind reader or intentionally destroying their partners things.

“That is not healthy. Not only should you feel safe but your belongings should be safe as well. I feel like we don’t talk a lot about things like that — the destroying of things that are important to you or violation of your privacy, like going through a partner’s phone. Stuff like that is such a red flag. These are signs of abuse and I feel like a lot of us don’t see it that way because we see it in popular culture.”

VSS has also created a teen support group that meets at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays via Zoom.

Swanagan said the topics covered in the group are similar to the Safe Dates curriculum.

“It’s a more informal way of talking about it,” she said. “We just discus things like trustworthiness, being honest and being open, and ‘I’ statements because it’s such an important way to describe how you are feeling without attacking the other person.

“You can say ‘I feel like this because of this,’ and separate the thing the person said or did that made us unhappy from the person.”

For more information about the VSS teen support group, call 565-3100.


Safe Dates Sessions

(Sessions are 3:30-4:30 p.m., every Monday, starting Oct. 4, at the Belen Public Library, 333 Becker Ave.)

  • Session 1: Defining Caring Relationships
  • Session 2: Defining Dating Abuse
  • Session 3: Why Do People Abuse?
  • Session 4: How to Help Friends
  • Session 5: Helping Friends
  • Session 6: Overcoming Gender Stereotypes
  • Session 7: How We Feel, How We Deal
  • Session 8: Equal Power through Communication
  • Session 9: Preventing Dating Sexual Abuse
  • Session 10: Reviewing the Safe Dates Program

For more information, contact Maserati Swanagan, education and outreach advocate at [email protected] or call 565-3100.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.