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After loss of her daughter, a mother works to end abuse

Jennifer Duke Burton was the kind of woman who made other people smile.

She was loving, generous, hard working and a leader. She played volleyball. She volunteered at her church. A mother of two and a sister to six, Jennie had lots of family and friends. She was one of those sunny, happy kinds of people.

And for 15 years, Jennie suffered through an abusive marriage.

Her family knew her husband was mentally and verbally cruel, but no one ever knew of the physical violence. Jennie hid it to protect her two daughters and to keep her family safe.

Her mother, Liz Donnelly, says it’s one of those things people think will never happen to them. But this experience has taught her it can happen to anyone.

“Jennie had five sisters and a brother; she could have gone to any of us for help,” Liz says. “I think she was embarrassed. She wanted so badly for her marriage to work, for her family to be normal, whole or whatever. Every time he said he would change, she believed him.”

When that no longer worked, when she finally cut him off completely and divorced him, he went mad. He stalked her. He called her nonstop. He hacked into her computer. Not even six months after the divorce, he lured Jennie to his apartment, where he brutally murdered her with a 12-gauge shotgun. She was 36 years old.

“Our world was absolutely shattered,” Liz, 64, says of the loss. “I’m living my worst nightmare. But I believe in God, and I believe he is calling on us to make something of this.”

For almost two years, Liz and her family couldn’t talk about the murder because of the trial. But in 2007, Jennie’s murderer was sentenced to life, and her family and friends could finally begin to heal.

To honor her memory they launched a volleyball tournament. At first the money they raised went to her daughters. But soon, one of her sisters suggested donating the money to the Rose Brooks Center in Jennie’s name.

Getting involved with Rose Brooks, the women’s shelter, has been a change for the good, Liz says.

“It helps being around people who will listen to your truth and accept it as truth,” she says.

Last year Liz took her interest a step further and became a table captain for Rose Brooks’ Walk in Their Shoes Luncheon.

Every year the center hosts the luncheon to raise money and awareness of domestic violence. Survivors share their stories, and people learn about what Rose Brooks (www.rose brooks.org) has to offer.

Last year Liz and her circle filled three tables.

Liz says she’s committed to not only honoring her daughter but also to spreading the word to prevent domestic violence and to help victims survive. She says so many people just don’t know about places like the Rose Brooks Center and how many services are out there.

Rose Brooks is not just an emergency shelter. It offers transitional housing, a violence-prevention program in 37 schools, hospital and court advocacy programs, children’s therapy and outreach counseling.

This year Liz will captain a table again — she has already filled nearly two. The luncheon is May 5 at the InterContinental Hotel on the Country Club Plaza. For tickets, call 816-523-5550.

It’s a bittersweet occasion for Liz, because it’s so close to May 11, the anniversary of Jennie’s death. But, ultimately, it’s rewarding.

“I think Jennie lived and she died for a purpose,” she says. “Our thought is if we could save one more woman, one more family from going through what we have gone through, it would be worth it.”