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No one would argue that more attention needs to be paid to the epidemic of intimate partner violence. But sometimes, as much as advocates, allies and the media try to get people’s attention, to tell survivors, There is hope. It can get better, it can sometimes feel like we’re shouting into an empty room.
New York’s Times Square on the other hand—well, that’s not exactly an empty room. On Jan. 31, the message of antiviolence reached new heights. Twenty-two stories high to be exact. DomesticShelters.org partnered with the nonprofit Safe in Harm’s Way and Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA), and harnessed the design expertise of the Neon, an IPG Health Company, to debut an electronic billboard that asked survivors to make that all-too-common abuser’s “I’m sorry” the very last one. The call-to-action lets survivors walking past know that help is a click away at TheLastImSorry.com.
Appearing in two locations around Times Square, the immense billboards send a clear message—everyone deserves to feel safe in their relationship. The dramatic falling rose petals that morph into a decaying bouquet depicted on a table represent the quintessential apology for whatever power and control tactic an abuser just inflicted, the gift a meaningless gesture survivors know all too well.
“This campaign was born from the reality that toxic relationships involve a turbulent love loop which perpetuates the abuser’s control over their partner,” says Sam Lauro, Neon’s Art Supervisor and one of the billboard’s creators. “There can be something insidious behind the repeated apologetic gesture. This all culminated into the insight that people in these situations experience underlying feelings of fear for the next incident or next ‘I’m Sorry.’”
Advocacy Rooted in Survival
Caroline Hammond, founder and CEO of Safe in Harm’s Way, began the domestic violence nonprofit in 2016 in response to surviving an abusive partner.
“To the outside world, we were the perfect couple—he worked really hard to put on the perfect façade,” says Hammond, a mother of three who was in her 40s when she thought she had found an ideal man. He spoiled her with expensive gifts, trips and romantic gestures, like the glass of wine he’d bring her in bed after the two were intimate.
She wouldn’t realize until much later that after that glass of wine, her memory would simply go blank. She suspected he was sexually assaulting her without her knowledge, something she found evidence of on his computer just weeks before the two were to be married. She took everything to the police who directed her to the FBI. But without physical evidence that she had been assaulted, there would be no arrest.
When she left him, Hammond spent a short period of time at a woman’s shelter. It was the first time someone showed her the Power and Control Wheel. It was a light-bulb moment.
“That was my life,” she remembers thinking. She realized she had been trapped in a cycle of abuse and apology, brainwashing so complex she couldn’t even see how much danger she was in until after she’d left.
“When I escaped, even with all my friends and all my resources, I lived out of my car for six weeks. I was on the run because I was afraid if he found me, he’d kill me and whoever I was with.”
A Series of Fortunate Events
She began to write her story in order to heal. She wondered how many other survivors were trapped like she had been. And she began volunteering with her local domestic violence nonprofit. Soon, she would create Safe in Harm’s Way as her own personal platform. Her three adult children, ages 24, 27 and 30, helped her create content aimed at reaching and educating other survivors of abuse.
Today, it’s her full-time passion.
Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, an opportunity presented itself. A friend who owned a media company in Missouri and had seen what Hammond was doing with her nonprofit and gifted her eight billboards around the state. Media attention followed and Hammond was introduced to the CEO of OAAA. Each year, the company chooses a nonprofit to run a free PSA for and Hammond was their 2021 choice.
Hammond knew she wanted to partner with DomesticShelters.org, and from there, Neon came on board. Together, TheLastImSorry.com was created for survivors to find customized help based on their unique circumstances.
Neon, part of the IPG Health Network, is a full-service healthcare agency. Perhaps ironically, their business is drawing attention to life-saving brands. So when the opportunity to draw attention to resources for victims of domestic violence came about, the company didn’t hesitate.
“I know I speak for the entire team, and Neon as a whole, when I say that we were amazed, grateful and humbled by the whole experience. We’ve never had our work displayed in such a prominent place or in such a huge way, so that in and of itself was a very cool moment—but to be able to have such an important and impactful campaign blown up to such a size where people are practically unable to avoid seeing our message—that was truly special,” says Senior Art Director Morgan Mellas. Along with Sam Lauro and Group Art Supervisor Lesia Gribbin, the women wanted the project to be “rooted in authentic experience and empathy,” and relied on DomesticShelters.org’s team of experts to help the understand the survivor’s entire experience.
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“The summary we created, to stimulate our thought process, was based on insight from first-hand accounts. This led us to focus on nuanced forms of domestic abuse such as emotional, financial or spiritual manipulation. We wanted to shed light on forms of abuse that were not as easily recognizable to help shift public discourse,” says Sam Lauro.
‘Who Can I Talk to Next?’
Hammond sees her entire journey from victim to survivor-advocate as a whirlwind experience.
“It’s just a testament to me that if you choose to start talking about what you’re experiencing, people rise to the occasion. I don’t stop talking about it … I always ask, ‘Who I can talk to next?’”
Hammond says that she doesn’t want to paint the picture of healing after abuse as “all rainbows. It can be heavy and hard, but worth the work. Life is so much better in the after.”
Seeing the billboard for the first time was “more than amazing,” says Hammond, but it goes beyond that. While she’s chosen to be “intentionally fearless” knowing that her abusive ex-fiancé who once threatened her life is still out there somewhere, she thinks about other possible victims.
“Men like him don’t change, and I worry what other woman and children are being harmed.”
Yet seeing the larger-than-life PSA—which appeared on digital billboards in 47 cities across the country throughout February, “is the most beautiful representation of everything my children and I lived through. It’s also the biggest sign that when you choose to speak up, the right people do come to help and you do continue your healing.”
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