The Player: Cheryl Masri & Jill Sorensen

Cheryl Masri and Jill Sorensen
Patrick Ryan
Cheryl Masri and Jill Sorensen

D.C. fundraisers are often de rigueur, but “Knock Out Abuse” kicked it up several notches.

The invitation to the November 11 event showcased a design by Shepard Fairey, the creator of President Obama’s iconic “HOPE” portrait. Over 700 women celebrated the ultimate girls’ night out—beaming as men cooed through a megaphone, piling in photo booths, and conga dancing their way into a stunning Ritz Carlton ballroom.

They soon gasped, as New York Times bestselling author Leslie Morgan Steiner recounted the turning point in her first marriage: the night when her husband smashed a photo frame over her head, kicked her in the ribs and choked her.

Yet, they recovered for the live auction, fawning over a labradoodle and bidding up dinner with Redskins Running Back Clinton Portis. The lovely ladies finished the evening by dancing with tux-clad men who arrived after the all-male Fight Night fundraiser.

“The best movies are those where you laugh and cry and laugh again,” mused “Knock Out Abuse” co-founder Jill Sorensen at a lunch with co-founder Cheryl Masri, WTOP’s Bob Madigan and myself. “That’s what we try to do, we try to entertain.”

Entertain they have, time and again, earning them a spot in the top 10 DC events, according to ‘Washingtonian’ magazine. At an interview at Ris Restaurant eight days earlier, they recounted highlights: celibate rock god Lenny Kravitz belting out “American Woman”, a 60’s extravaganza of love-beaded, Levi-clad escorts and peace trees, and the fun of catering to pumped up and glammed up women. A bit of reverse sexism? Absolutely. “Some women will pay $1500 for a man to take his T-shirt off,” exclaims Sorensen.

Former Ford model Sorensen, luminous in a cowl neck sweater and skinny jeans, is more raw emotion. Her image and enthusiasm are consistent with her acting and interior design career. Masri, clad from head to toe in sophisticated black under a checked jacket, more calmly cites statistics and inspiration. Her composure seems to reflect her work with Tomorrow’s Youth, a high-profile nonprofit she runs with her husband that helps at-risk Middle Eastern communities. Their gala last month recognized President Clinton and Cherie Blair.

Partners of almost two decades, Masri and Sorensen tell stories together, eagerly sharing their enduring motivation and their journey to the present.

Knock Out Abuse’s fundraising total—over $ 7 million—belies its humble start. Sorensen, new to DC and the domestic abuse trials of two friends, met then-graphic designer Masri in 1994. The two organized a $45 dinner for friends on Fight Night, the all-male benefit for children’s charities.

“At Café Milano we had 20 people— was it 20 people?” asks Sorenson.

“It was a little bit more,” answers Masri, describing the event. “At the end there were some fellows next door who came in from Morton’s. So one of the gals at the table picked up a hat and went around the bar and collected about $5000—much more than what we raised on our own for the dinner.”

“It was very sophisticated fundraising,” jokes Sorensen.

The next year’s nonstop OJ Simpson trial coverage boosted awareness, and the two slowly realized the event’s potential. 2,000 women distinctly uninvited to the macho Fight Night + a great cause could = a huge turnout. Then they stepped it up, moving to the Ritz-Carlton in 2000.

This is a watershed year. The press is buzzing with the high-profile cases of Rihanna, Charlie Sheen, and Mel Gibson. The ‘National Enquirer’ ran a cover story on the many Hollywood celebrities with a history of domestic abuse. Local papers covered murder-suicides rooted in domestic violence almost weekly.

The statistics are shocking. One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and 15 million children witness violence each year. But it is the stories of drawn out, lived-in abuse—of the women who suffered silently for years—that bring a sobering reality. The effects deeply traumatize individuals, often causing post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The scary thing about domestic violence is you become a prisoner in your own mind,” says Sorensen, describing the victimization of women of strong educational and economic backgrounds. A statement by meditation teacher Sally Kempton, on how individuals control others, resonates with her. “It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head,” she quotes.

Victims slow to take the advice of family and friends often find nowhere to turn. So outside help, like shelters and educational programs, are imperative. But government resources are being slashed even as the need for them is growing. During economic downturns, people who should split up stay together, and alcohol and drug abuse rises, which are all major contributing factors to domestic violence.

And the problem could grow as teenagers lose parental oversight with Internet and texting technologies and bullying increases. “Twenty-five percent of [sixth grade] students think it’s okay for boys to hit girls,” cites Sorensen.

Sorensen and Masri aspire to expand the scope of Knock Out Abuse. They want to teach teens the boundaries of acceptable behavior, expand to other cities, and enlist sane and sexy stars like Pierce Brosnan. They also envision growing “Sharing Spaces,” a framework of women who donate furniture and time to transform shelters into more welcoming, attractive environments.

Looking back, the two agree on the best part of the two decades: “Extraordinary women that I never would have had the opportunity to meet,” says Masri.

“A giant sisterhood of support,” says Sorensen, “to have all these women come out in solidarity.”

Keep knocking it out of the park, ladies.

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Thu, 24 Apr 2014 19:05:32 -0400

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