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Running: Turning a domestic violence tragedy into hope for survivors

Andrea Kwasniewski wanted to mark her daughter's birthday in a special way. It had been nearly a year since Ashley Whiting died and she thought celebrating what would have been Ashley's 22nd birthday would ease her own pain.

The family went to Ashley's gravesite. They shared a meal then went to the beach to release lanterns. But instead of easing her pain, it only magnified it.

"It took me a month to recover emotionally," Kwasniewski said.

The next year she went with family members to the cemetery and released balloons. This time, "I actually felt worse," Kwasniewski said.

"I didn't want her birthday to be a day that I dreaded or that my family dreaded because it was hard for me," Kwasniewski said. "I wanted to do something positive to celebrate her birthday."

She took suggestions from family and friends. Those who were runners posed the possibility of a 5K race. And something about that just felt right. It felt like a way to turn her daughter's tragedy into help for someone else.

"I'm not a runner, but I do have a ton of friends who are runners," Kwasniewski said. "Everyone gives you a ton of ideas, but I really did like the idea of the run and a post-race event and something annually to raise money for the Haven House. After a lot of thinking, that's the way I decided to go."

The first Ashley May 5K Run for Domestic Violence will be held on June 24 at Galanti Park in Lackawanna.

The primary beneficiary will be Haven House, part of the Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence, which provides a range of services for survivors of domestic violence, including emergency shelter; long-term transitional housing; and counseling services. The 5K event is an opportunity to raise money and awareness about domestic violence issues, giving survivors a chance that Ashely didn't get.

Ashley Whiting was 21 years old in July of 2015 when she was stabbed to death by her husband, Daniel, at their home in Lackawanna. He was convicted of second-degree murder a year later and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

It remains challenging for Kwasniewski to discuss the circumstances surrounding her daughter's murder.

"She had been married for two years and had two children, at the time 1-and-half-years-old and 8-weeks old," Kwasniewski said. "They were just like any young couple. We didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. It was a tremendous shock to family when it happened."

That's a common story, said Lauren Gorlick, the community liaison for Haven House. "Domestic violence can be easily hidden," she said. "It doesn't always present as physical abuse, but includes mental and emotional abuse and often includes elements of financial control.

When Gorlick heard Kwasniewski's story and her desire to honor Ashley with a 5K, Haven House was ready to get on board.

"Working in this field, we recognize that domestic violence thrives in the darkness," Gorlick said. "It's the most underreported crime. This gives us another opportunity to explain to people what domestic violence is in the first place, to talk about it and share our mission and our success stories, those who have gone on to live full lives. … We use the term survivor rather than victim because survivor has an element of hope. It's important for someone going through this, even if they haven't left their abuser, to let them know there's hope regardless of whatever situation they're in."

That message will be part of the event on June 24. The post-race celebration will include giving out a strength and courage award to a domestic violence survivor along with self-defense demonstrations.

"When I was sitting with Lauren and told her this was something I was hoping they could be part of, that's when it really hit me and felt like I was supposed to be doing this," Kwasniewski said. "At first, it was for a selfish reason – to help heal myself and help my family move forward. But when I sat down and talked to her, it was like, 'Wow. I'm really supposed to be doing this.'"

This 5K primarily is about fundraising and awareness. Running was part of Ashely's specific story. But the sport can be an important tool for survivors of domestic violence.

"Exercise is proven to be an effective way of battling stress and stress and big part of emotional and mental health," Gorlick said. "When stress is not properly addressed it can take up your whole life. Moving forward, exercise and running can reduce that stress more generally but it certainly helps with long-term healing as well."

Running Calendar

Sunday, April 29

  • 22nd Annual BuffaloRunners 6-Hour Distance Classic, 8 a.m., North of the The Northtown Center, 1615 Amherst Manor Drive, Williamsville
  • WNY Maple Festival SAPS Race, 10K and 5K, 9 a.m., Franklinville Central Central School District, 31 N. Main Street, Franklinville
  • Strides Diabetes Awareness 5K, 9 a.m., Lewiston Fire Hall #1, 145 N 6th St, Lewiston
  • 1891 Run 5K, 9 a.m., 1891 Fredonia Opera House, 9 Church St, Fredonia

Wednesday, May 2

  • Flatliner Series No. 3, 3 miles, 6:15 p.m., Chestnut Ridge Park, Newton Road Entrance

Friday, May 4

  • St Martha Fiesta 5k Ole!, 6 p.m., St Martha Parish/OLBS School, 10 French Rd, Depew
  • NCCC Alumni Association’s 5K Run, 6:30 p.m.,  Niagara County Community College, 3111 Saunders Settlement Rd., Sanborn
  • Catalyst Fitness Race For A Cause, 5K, 6:30 p.m., Catalyst Fitness Express, 2745 Seneca Street, West Seneca

Saturday, May 5

  • 24th Annual GBTC Grand Island Half Marathon and 10K, 9 a.m., Beaver Island State Park, Grand Island
  • Allegany Adventure Runs, 6K, 13K, 27K, trail run, 9:30 a.m., Allegany State Park Salamanca, Summit Trailhead Ski Lodge
  • DeSales Race For Fitness, 5K, 10 a.m., DeSales Catholic School, 6914 Chestnut Ridge Rd., Lockport

Sunday, May 6

  • Cinco De Mayo 5K, noon, Davison Road Inn, 383 Davison Rd., Lockport
  • Running Water 5K, 1:30 p.m., Clarence Town Park, 1 Town Place Park, Clarence
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