When you meet Danielle DeZao, you face a well-spoken, bright-eyed blonde with a firm handshake and an open smile. She is not meek by any means, and you certainly don’t picture the chatty Marist College fashion merchandising student as the kind of girl who could be pushed around. But she was.
Two years ago, DeZao was on the receiving end of a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. “My ex-boyfriend was perfect. My parents thought we were going to get married,” she says. But when frivolous arguments over her clothes and friends culminated with her ex insisting on knowing (and controlling) every moment of her day — and eventually pushing, shoving, and striking her — DeZao decided she’d had enough. After nearly a year of abuse, she sought guidance from school counselors and her parents (“I probably took 20 years off their lives when I told them everything,” she laughs), and ended the relationship for good.
DeZao then learned that one in every three young adults is involved in a similar relationship. She felt moved to do something. “I started making bracelets,” she says. Now, as head of H♥rt1 — a student-run organization that aims to “heal a heart, remove the one [young adult in an abusive relationship]” — DeZao has been invited to the White House; featured on ABC and Fox News programs; and worked with fashion guru Tim Gunn and Liz Claiborne, Inc. to raise awareness and stop physical and emotional abuse. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; to get the message out, DeZao is teaming up with Poughkeepsie’s Grace Smith House to host vigils and events at Marist. She is also working to reinstate domestic violence training programs for campus security guards — the first such lessons in 15 years.
Throughout it all, DeZao has stayed positive; she offers some advice for teens and young adults who find themselves in an emotionally and/or physically abusive situation: “Trust yourself. Love yourself enough to not let anyone else hurt you. And most importantly, tell someone — anyone — about it!”