Award-Winning Team Promotes Healthy Relationships

Keith LaBelle ’00, ’03 captained the baseball team as an undergraduate. Today, he’s a co-captain of a different type of team, one that is hitting home runs with its messages—on campus and across the country.

LaBelle coordinates and Jenn Longa Moio directs the University’s award-winning Violence Prevention and Advocacy Services Program, which provides education and awareness about sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. It also provides advocacy to victims of these crimes. The target audience is students, particularly freshmen.

When he was a student athlete, LaBelle attended an awareness workshop and learned that one in four women will experience sexual assault sometime during her lifetime. “I had never thought about it before,” he says. “Then I started thinking, ‘wait a minute, I have two sisters, a mom, and many aunts, female cousins, and friends.‘”

Each semester, peer advocates—all of whom have taken a women’s studies course on violence against women—are busy hosting events and making presentations, including presentations to all 130 sections of URI 101 classes. Sixteen of the 28 peer advocates are NCAA student-athletes, including four members of the football team and three members of the basketball team.

Stereotypically, athletes tend to be viewed as perpetrators of sexual assault and not as promoters of healthy relationships, notes Labelle, who argues that athletes and leaders of Greek organizations are high profile students and as such make great role models. “When someone like [basketball star] Jimmy Baron says ‘This isn’t cool. This isn’t right,’ students really listen.”

Originally funded by a Department of Justice grant seven years ago, the program has not only been institutionalized but is gathering national recognition in combating violent crimes against women on campus. Labelle and Longa Maio are in demand as speakers at conferences, colleges, and high schools, and most times they are asked to give repeat performances.

URI peer advocates won the 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Peacemaker Award, the 2006 A. Robert Rainville Team Leadership Award, and the 2006 National Violence Goes to College Award for outstanding student programming.