Working to avert violence, bullying, and suicide: the Breaking the Cycle program keeps this mom motivated

Havilah King

Havilah King 1978 –

A mother of five who grew up on the Bruderhof, Havilah worked in customer service for eleven years before joining the staff of Breaking the Cycle.

Breaking the Cycle (BTC) is a program our community runs in public and private schools throughout the New York metropolitan area. We offer to host assemblies on nonviolent conflict resolution featuring various speakers who tell their stories and then moderate a Q and A. Each of them has overcome incredible tragedy and heartache through forgiveness. 

Our main goal is to counteract youth violence, bullying, peer pressure, and racism, and to promote self-respect and respect for others. It’s also about nurturing relationships between educators, parents, students, and the community at large. We always invite local dignitaries like mayors, judges, DAs, and law enforcement officers to our events. They tend to be our biggest advocates. 

Havilah has worked with BTC for eight years, but the program was born much earlier, with the 1997 publication of a book about forgiveness by Bruderhof author Johann Christoph Arnold. One of the stories Arnold featured was that of Steven McDonald, a NYPD detective who had been shot while on duty. Though the injury had left him paralyzed from the neck down, Steven had forgiven his assailant. 

Sergio broke free from a life of gang membership, violence, and drugs. Now, as a speaker for Breaking the Cycle, he inspires students to dare to make a change.

Christoph got to know Steven, and they began speaking at schools together. They started locally, but after the Columbine shooting in 1999, the program took off, with requests from New York City and across the region, and it’s been going nonstop ever since. To date, we’ve done a total of almost nine hundred assemblies and given out over 350,000 copies of Arnold’s book Why Forgive? from England and Northern Ireland to Israel and Rwanda. And all over the United States, of course. Mostly in the Northeast, but also in California, Florida, Virginia, and Indiana.

Along the way, other speakers have joined us, and their stories have become the centerpiece of our presentations. One is Hashim Garrett. He’s an African American from Brooklyn, and a former gang member who turned his life around after almost losing it. Another is Sergio Argueta, a community activist on Long Island who is originally from El Salvador. Both men have lost friends and family members to violence and are committed to helping young people address their problems in a positive way, instead of trying to solve them with guns. Obviously, they connect well with urban youth, since they both speak the language of the street. 

Before she got involved with BTC, Havilah says she found its premises so obvious that they almost seemed simplistic. “On a theoretical level, I think most of us accept the idea of talking things through, rather than resorting to violence.” But as she has seen since then, whether fielding the desperate requests of school administrators who contact her office and beg for an assembly, or sitting in a high school auditorium watching teens break down and cry, the reality is often very different. Forgiveness is a rare attitude, and needs to be championed and promoted. To quote Christoph Arnold, from a BTC event in 2003: 

It’s true there’s one school shooting after another. But in many cases, the trouble starts over small things. Not drugs, not gangs. But over cliques, bullying. That’s how violence can start, right here in your halls and classrooms: when you gossip, when you’re jealous or nasty. When you pick a fight. 

So there’s plenty you can do to work for peace right here, today. Show your peers that you’re above hitting back, above holding a grudge, above retaliating. Show them that you’re smart enough to work things out with words. Talk. Reach out. Forgive that person who’s making you angry.

We’ll never know how many lives we’ve changed or saved. But that doesn’t matter. As a mother, I’m just grateful to be involved in some small way in something that can give young people hope.

By the way, forgiving is not pretending something didn’t happen. It means just the opposite: looking at the person who has hurt you and saying, “Even though he did this to me, I am not going to get him back.” That may sound crazy. But think about the consequences, if you do plan on hitting back. Who are you going to hurt, in the end? And who will end up paying for it?

Although BTC’s initial focus was on promoting forgiveness as the key to solving conflicts, it has gradually expanded its program to address a broad range of issues affecting children and young people. In 2014, it brought onboard two speakers who are passionate about addressing suicide and drug overdoses, both skyrocketing causes of teen mortality. The first, Ann Marie D’Aliso, lost her son to suicide; the second, Randi Kelder, lost a brother to heroin. 

As time goes on, Havilah says, BTC staff have noticed that their audience is expanding too, beyond the teens they have always focused on: “It’s not just students. Teachers, staff, and even cops are often moved to tears. After one recent assembly, the local chief of police got up and spontaneously bared his soul to everyone present. He was abused by his father as a child and hadn’t spoken to him in fifteen years, but recently found the strength to forgive.” Just hearing a story like that, Havilah says, can sometimes be enough to give a desperate young person a glimmer of hope, and “a reason to keep going.”

At the end of the day, Havilah says, she wishes BTC didn’t have to exist. In the meantime, however, she finds it rewarding to watch the program reach teenagers’ hearts: 

We’ll never know how many lives we’ve changed or saved. But that doesn’t matter. As a mother, I’m just grateful to be involved in some small way in something that can give young people hope.

Learn more about the Breaking the Cycle program here.

Neal, a science teacher at The Mount Academy, coaches the school’s Envirothon team, by studying a deer’s jawbone to determine age and habits. The Mount team has won two championships in the National Conservation Foundation Envirothon.

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