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Recently in: Get Involved

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Memory of Fallen Friend Leads Sheila Wysocki to Fight For Safety of Others


After helping to solve the 26-year-old rape and murder of her college roommate, this Tennessee mother is working to prevent others from a similar fate

It required becoming a private investigator, overcoming dyslexia and breaking through an unhelpful Dallas police department, but the persistence of Sheila Wysocki led to solving the 26-year-old murder of her friend and former college roommate, Angie Samota. The remarkable story is soon to become a book, movie and hour long documentary special on Dateline NBC. Now, this mother from Brentwood, TN is hoping to prevent others from experiencing a similar fate as her friend. "If we had the knowledge in 1984, we would have saved her life," says Wysocki.

Wysocki first met Samota when the two were roommates as freshmen at Southern Methodist University. The pair could not have been more opposite: Wysocki was the daughter of a working class mother and attending school on scholarship; Samota was rich, beautiful and one of the few female computer majors in the country. But the pair eventually formed a close friendship that continued even when Samota decide to move off-campus.

However, one night in 1984 changed the course of Wysocki's life forever, when a stranger knocked on Samota's apartment door in the early morning hours. "He said he needed to use the phone and the restroom and because she was kind, she let him in," says Wysocki. Realizing that she had made a mistake, Samota called her boyfriend, but her attacker had already cased the home.

Angie Samota was raped, murdered and stabbed 18 times. The murder scene was so gruesome that investigators initially believed that Samota's heart had been ripped out. The death of her friend proved to be a crushing blow, leading Wysocki to ultimately drop out of college. "It was so out of anything that I understood in my safe little world," says Wysocki. "I just didn't know that evil existed. The death was traumatic enough, but the manner in which she died was life altering."

Wysocki spent the next two years speaking with detectives and even regularly met with suspects in the case. Even when she tried to distance herself from the murder, the death of Samota continued to hang over her head. "When I'd be out at restaurants or parties, I would look at someone there and wonder if they had anything to do with it," says Wysocki.

The introduction of DNA evidence in O.J. Simpson's murder trial in 1995 began to get Wysocki thinking about exploring the case once more. But when she eventually gave birth to her two children, their medical conditions left her powerless to do anything. Both of them suffered from environmental poisoning, with her sons were making weekly trips to the hospital. When their conditions stabilized in 2004, she was able to consider exploring the murder once more. "I thought the police were the ultimate authority in my 20s," says Wysocki. "Years later, I started questioning things and beginning to think they could have been done differently."
However, it was a Bible study session that year which led to Wysocki seeing a vision of her fallen friend, a clear sign to continue moving forward in finding answers to the murder. "I was sitting at my bed and at the end of my bed, I saw her smiling and could see what she was wearing" says Wysocki. "And as crazy as it sounds, I knew then that it was time."
She contacted the homicide division at the Dallas Police Department, who informed her that no one had called about Samota's murder in 20 years. For the next two years, she called for updates on hundreds of occasions, but was given the run-around by the department. They had no interest in reopening the case.  "I just couldn't understand how hard it was to pull the file and pull the DNA, but obviously it was for them," said Wysocki.
Wysocki eventually spoke with the owner of the security company in her gated community, who said her best bet was to become a private investigator. Suffering from dyslexia, Wysocki had her then 13-year-old son read her the book with all the laws that she was required to learn. Once she passed the exam, she contacted Skip Hollandsworth, a writer for Texas Monthly, and he offered to walk her through the politics of Dallas police.
With her P.I. badge in tow, she reached out to the Dallas police once more, but found them to be just as unreceptive. "The credentials did nothing," says Wysocki. It just let them know that I wasn't going away and was going to become a bigger problem unless they started working on the case."
After four years and hundreds of phone calls, she finally got a call from a female detective who was assigned to "investigate" the case. Wysocki felt the homicide department was patronizing her. At one point in the investigation a former detective proved to be her most upsetting moment in the search for answers. "He told me that some cases weren't meant to be solved, this was one of them and that I needed to back off," she recalled. "I can't tell you how angry that made me." The case was later selected to appear on an episode of Crime Stoppers, but after getting into a heated argument with a detective who asked whether or not Samota was "loose," they ended up pulling it from the program. "They still blame the victim in situations like this and it makes me so mad, but I learned that I have to bite my tongue to get what I want, regardless of what my feelings are," says Wysocki. 
Detectives eventually relented and agreed to reopen the case in 2008. When they tested the DNA, they found a perfect match in five-time convicted serial rapist Donald Bess. Bess was ultimately detained and sent to trial, where he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death in 2010. It was the only cold case that received a death sentence that year. And with that, Wysocki promptly retired her P.I. license. "I had worked some other divorce cases and helped friends out, but there was only one case I had gotten my license for and truly cared about," says Wysocki.
But Wysocki continued to get signs that her calling was perhaps not done yet. When she spoke at seminars, people would send letters or come up to her afterwards and confess their own experiences with rape, asking her to help find their perpetrators. Deciding that no one should ever go through the terror of being assaulted, Wysocki researched a self-defense program in Dallas and incorporated a similar model in the Nashville area.
She started Without Warning: Fight Back in July 2011, a program which educates both male and female children and adults on self-defense through awareness, prevention and training. The end goal is to develop a program in school systems where children are taught "stranger danger" and how to protect themselves, ultimately incorporating a curriculum in schools across the US. "I don't need to create the curriculum, but people get complacent, so somebody like me has to push it," says Wysocki. 
Her investigating days may not be done yet either. Wysocki is now in the process of renewing her P.I. license with her youngest son reading the current handbook to her.  And she's finally gained closure in the death of Samota, revisiting the SMU campus for the first time since the murder when her oldest son chose to attend college there.
But while the mystery of Samota's murder has drawn to a close, Wysocki says she has now made a lifelong commitment to solving and preventing similar incidents. "I feel like if I'm not supposed to be doing this, a barrier would go up," says Wysocki. "That hasn't happened yet."

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This June Dateline NBC will be airing an hour long documentary special on Sheila Wysocki. Wysocki's stupefying story has caught the attention of many. It will also soon be released as a book and a movie.

... Continue reading Memory of Fallen Friend Leads Sheila Wysocki to Fight For Safety of Others.

Kiva Celebrates International Women's Day


Of the almost three billion adults worldwide who are unbanked or under-banked, most are women. Without access to education and resources to start a business, their potential and dreams are far too often wasted. This affects us all.

In honor of International Women's Day, Kiva will launch Kiva.org/women on March 7 to spotlight the power of women to create sustainable change when everyday people lend their support. As part of the kick-off for Kiva Women -  partner Dermalogica is funding a $100,000 Kiva Women free trial program that will enable new users of Kiva Women to direct a $25 loan to the woman borrower of their choice.

For as long as funds last, you can direct a $25 loan to a woman borrower of your choice without fronting a penny - Dermalogica is covering the free trials.

Help start the ripple effect of change that creates financial independence through entrepreneurship for women worldwide.

More about Kiva: Kiva is the world's first and largest microlending website where anyone, anywhere can help alleviate global poverty and empower women through loans as small as $25. Since Kiva's launch in 2005, more than 80% of the loans funded through Kiva have been to women borrowers in 60 countries and the United States. Kiva has connected more than 600,000 women borrowers to nearly 650,000 lenders, crowdfunding more than $200 million in loans to women. Loans through Kiva have a 98.9% payback rate and have proven to be a significant resource for women worldwide.

... Continue reading Kiva Celebrates International Women's Day.

Ordway Seeking Nominations for 2010 Sally Awards

19th annual Sally Ordway Irvine Awards to honor extraordinary achievements in the arts

SAINT PAUL, MINN. - October 7, 2010 - Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is seeking nominations for the 2010 Sally Ordway Irvine Awards.  These prestigious awards, now in their 19th year, provide an opportunity to recognize and honor extraordinary achievements in the arts throughout Minnesota.

"Minnesota's arts scene is so rich and vibrant that it's difficult to keep up with all the great work being done around the state," said Patricia A. Mitchell, Ordway president and CEO.  "We therefore rely on colleagues, arts enthusiasts and citizens to nominate individuals and organizations who have made a significant impact on their community or on their artistic discipline. We want to cast the net as broadly as possible by seeking nominations from all corners of the state."

Each year, one person or organization receives an award in each of the following categories: Vision, Initiative, Commitment, and Education.  Last year's winners were VSA arts of Minnesota (Vision), Bedlam Theatre (Initiative), Myron Johnson (Commitment), and T. Mychael Rambo (Education).  

This year, in recognition of the Minnesota Legacy Amendment, a fifth category has been added: the Arts Access Award.  It will recognize extraordinary efforts to increase the depth and breadth of citizen participation in the arts. "The real focus of the Legacy Amendment has been to make it possible for more people to become engaged in the arts," noted Mitchell. "This award will recognize the importance of increasing access to the arts, complementing the other four categories which focus on the creation of wonderful art."

Nominations for the 2010 awards are being accepted through November 15, 2010.  Individuals and organizations from any artistic or cultural field are eligible, as long as their work took place in Minnesota. Nominees may be artists, professional administrators, volunteers or philanthropists.

After all entries have been received, a selection committee reviews the nominations and selects the four award winners, who will be honored at the Sally Awards ceremony at the Ordway on March 21, 2011.
Nomination forms and additional information are available online at http://www.ordway.org/sallyawards

... Continue reading Ordway Seeking Nominations for 2010 Sally Awards.

Gifts That Give Back

Imagine going to a big box store this holiday season that only sells gifts that educate girls in Afghanistan, house homeless veterans in the Bronx or offer microloans for rice farmers in India.

With the holiday season upon us, more parents are looking for gifts that truly "give back." So, check out this great "Unwrap the Good" list of 10 great gifts that make an impact, compiled by Dennis Whittle and Mari Kuraishi, the co-founders of Global Giving--the leading online marketplace for philanthropy.

For those looking to give more than the same old gifts this season, GlobalGiving's list offers affordable options that not only make an impact for good, but are socially and environmentally responsible. Teaching our kids to give back is more important now than ever--this list offers some good ways to teach the lesson this holiday season.

Would you like a free $10 gift card from GlobalGiving? Join our new social network, Share.MomTalk.com, and a winner will be selected at random from new members who join by December 12th. You get a new network of moms and a chance to give back this holiday season.

If you would like to learn more about GlobalGiving visit the Global Giving site.

... Continue reading Gifts That Give Back.

Dictionary Project Gives Students the Gift of Words

Through a national initiative, service organizations are helping third-grade students learn with their own personal dictionaries.

(NAPSI)-Communities with active service groups across the country are in a unique position to provide children like Stephen with a vital learning tool that's easy to use and builds confidence and curiosity while developing their reading skills...all with the simple gift of a donated Webster's Dictionary.

The Dictionary Project began when South Carolina mom Mary French set a goal to raise funds to donate a dictionary to every third-grade student in the state. She saw a dramatic need to provide assistance to children at the critical age when they make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Students in the early school years learn about 3,000 new words each year. "Children crave words when they're in the third grade," says French. "They're expanding their frame of reference. With this project, we are putting words into children's hands and the results are astounding."

Since the Project began 13 years ago, nearly 8 million dictionaries have been given to students locally through Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs and other service organizations nationwide.

Deborah Hastings, publisher of Federal Street Press, a division of Merriam-Webster, believes these projects have far-reaching effects. She and her team supply affordable, brightly-colored paperback dictionaries (as well as thesauruses and atlases) to service groups that present them to students in the communities where they live.

"A group may choose to donate to a single classroom, or to every third grade in their town or city. The kids are thrilled because they each have a dictionary that is theirs to keep. The fact that most groups donate year after year tells me that their effort is rewarded by the response of the kids, their teachers and their families who all benefit," says Hastings. "We are proud that we are continuing in the tradition of Noah Webster, who saw the dictionary as a learning tool that opens up the world to children through language."

For more information on how your organization can donate dictionaries in your community, visit Federal Street Press.

... Continue reading Dictionary Project Gives Students the Gift of Words.

Honoring Women In The Military


(NAPSI)-The female experience is a vital part of America's military experience, and the Veterans History Project created a new initiative to honor their contributions.

Women make up 15 percent of those in active military service and by 2010 will comprise 10 percent of all living American veterans. They have one-of-a-kind experiences to share, and the Library of Congress is one place their stories can be told.

The Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center was created by the U.S. Congress in 2000 to collect, safeguard and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans.

The Veterans History Project (VHP) has grown to be the largest oral history program in American history, having collected nearly 60,000 firsthand recollections--approximately 3,500 of them from female war veterans.

Visitors to the Project's Web site, can see and hear from women like Violet Hill Gordon, a young African American who, at the height of segregation, joined the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and went on to become a commanding officer in the Central Postal Directory during World War II.

Rhona Marie Prescott, a chief nurse in a remote hospital in An Khe during the height of the war in Vietnam, tells another compelling story. With Army doctors in short supply, Prescott was called to perform surgeries in makeshift tents in nonsterile environments and decide who might be saved.

Another military history maker was Darlene Iskra, who enlisted in the Navy in 1979 and went on to become one of the first females to graduate from dive school. Her tenacity and talent won her a loyal following in the higher echelons of the Navy, and in December 1990 she became the first woman to take command of a U.S. Navy ship, aptly named the Opportune.

You can become a volunteer historian and record stories for this important program. Go to the VHP Web site and learn step by step how to get involved.

There is a timely need for interviews from veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In addition, VHP seeks interviews from female veterans from all conflicts, veterans representing all minority communities, as well as Merchant Marine, Coast Guard, National Guard and Reserve veterans.

Visit VHP at www.loc.gov/vets, e-mail vohp@loc.gov or call 888-371-5848.

Photo courtesy of Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1942.

The Veterans History Project is a rich and growing collection of close to 60,000 individual personal accounts of wartime experience.

... Continue reading Honoring Women In The Military.

It's Democracy, It's Art


There's an interesting project taking place all over the Twin Cities called My Yard Our Message. This is a user-created yard sign project launched to coincide with the 2008 presidential elections. Their web site states:

My Yard Our Message is a user-created yard sign project, launched in conjunction with the United States presidential election. The project is divided into three phases: in June 2008, artists and designers were invited to submit political yard sign designs exploring ideas about what it means to actively participate in a democracy. Beginning July 1, with design submitted, and a month-long public voting process began, where browsers could cast votes for their favorite yard signs. And now that the citizenry has spoken, the top 50 vote-getting designs are available for individual purchase. You can see the winning designs here.

In addition, the Walker Art Center and mnartists.org will print the winning yard signs and place them in neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities metro area, including those immediately surrounding the site of the Republican National Convention. St. Paul neighborhoods that will serve as outdoor sign galleries include Dayton's Bluff, sponsored by the District 4 Community Council, and the West Side, sponsored by the West Side Citizens Organization. Seward, organized by the Seward Neighborhood Group, will serve as the Minneapolis gallery neighborhood.

My Yard our Message is part of larger community initiative called The UnConvention. A non-partisan collective of citizens and cultural institutions, The UnConvention provides a forum for promoting the democratic and free exchange of ideas during and after the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota from September 1-4, 2008.

The original call for entries is available on mnartists.org. My Yard Our Message is a project conceived by Scott Sayre, is produced by the Walker Art Center and mnartists.org in collaboration with The UnConvention.

... Continue reading It's Democracy, It's Art.