By Steve Helmeci
July 8, 2013
MONROEVILLE, Pa. – Pictures of a young girl flash up on the projector screen hanging in the auditorium. As Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” plays in the background, the sad story of Demi Brae Cuccia is relayed to 300 or more people. Video clips of shocked friends and members of the Gateway community talking about Demi’s kind demeanor or love for life cycle between more pictures of the girl. A few news clips offer some explanation of the tragic night, but the true story isn’t fully explained. Eventually, text comes over a photo of Demi that describes her horrible premature passing.
From the raw emotion conveyed in the video, it felt as though she passed yesterday, not a whole five years ago.
But that was only the beginning of the presentation.
On Aug 15, 2007, Demi, a Junior at Gateway High School at the time, allowed her ex-boyfriend, John Mullarkey, to come over and talk. Perhaps she expected a small altercation, but not what would happen next. Nobody would expect what happened next.
In what is believed to be a premeditated assault, Mullarkey pulled a knife on Demi and attacked her, stabbing Demi 16 times. Somehow, Demi was able to escape the house, where she collapsed on a neighbor’s lawn. One of the lacerations severed a major artery in Demi’s shoulder, causing her to bleed to death that night. It was the day after he she turned 16.
Nobody becomes a parent expecting to have to bury their child someday. But, Dr. Gary Cuccia had to bury his daughter, a “beautiful girl [who] loved everybody.”
“You never want to walk in my shoes,” Cuccia said. “It’s one of those clubs you never want to be a member of.”
Cuccia is the head of the Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organization, which he founded in his daughter’s memory with the goal of educating high school students about the perils of teen dating violence. On May 2, he came and gave his presentation, including the sobering video, to Mt. Lebanon High School freshmen and sophomores.
Immediately after Demi’s death, however, Cuccia took an activist path. He worked to champion a bill in the state House of Representatives that mandated teen dating violence education in all Pennsylvania high schools in honor of Demi. Despite the passing of House Bill 2026, Cuccia calls the process a “nightmare.”
“I was so frustrated with the legislators,” Cuccia said. “We mailed a letter to every state representative; there’s 214 state representatives and 50 senators. That’s a lot of legislators. We got four responses back.”
Although Representative Scott Conklin (D) of Centre County agreed to sponsor the bill, the headaches were only beginning for Cuccia.
“The problem with legislation is, once there’s a bill that is getting a lot of attention, it’s gaining momentum, a lot of legislators want to attach something to it, because they think, ‘this is how I can get my agenda passed,’” Cuccia said.
After his frustrating and draining battle to get his daughter’s legislation passed, Cuccia changed tactics, despite offers to aid in federal legislation. He said, “Then I thought, I have to do something. I have to share Demi’s message to high school students.”
Though Cuccia acknowledged the importance of the legislation, he realized “it’s just not as important as I had [thought] initially.”
Cuccia knew he needed a way to get Demi’s story directly to students, to teach them that dating violence is real and prevalent. That was the beginning of the Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organization.
Cuccia says that, after more than 50 presentations to approximately 40,000 high school students, the presentations can take their toll.
“I get emotionally drained,” Cuccia said. “I pour my heart out when I’m speaking to you guys. I just really want my daughter’s story to resonate so that it makes a difference.”
Cuccia says that it makes him uncomfortable to do more than one presentation in a day. He has tried to do three in a day, but physically cannot do it. There are only so many times in one day he can talk about his daughter.
It is Cuccia’s belief that hearing his daughter’s story will have a more profound impact on the students he speaks to. “A health teacher can have a lesson on [dating violence], but I think it’s more powerful to see my daughter, and to feel her story,” he said.
Cuccia touched on a number of points during his presentation, but, for those who weren’t able to see it, he has one piece of advice for all teens: “If you think you’re in a controlling, abusive relationship, be extra careful in taking steps to get out of it. Do it in a public setting around friends; do not allow yourself to be put in a situation where you’re alone,” he said.
For more information about Demi or the organization, scan the QR code, go to www.demibrae.com or “like” The Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Foundation’s Facebook page.