Grace: Her faith in people, broken after beating by ex-boyfriend, is restored by kindness -
Published Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:41 pm
Grace: Her faith in people, broken after beating by ex-boyfriend, is restored by kindness

Two men still make Jacey Gengenbach cry.

One terrorized her. He drove his van into her west Omaha garage door. He kicked open her locked basement door. He broke her jaw and her nose and pummeled her face, concentrating on her right eye where she'd had a tumor removed. That man is now in jail. She can't say his name without getting sick.

The other man surprised her. He walked into her personal training business and handed her a card that told her she was strong and she shouldn't give up and she should keep moving forward. Inside the card was $500 in cash. That man is gone. He didn't stick around to see Jacey's reaction. He left only this name: “A Friend of Jesus.”

There have been 124 others like this second man who, in the past two weeks, have given money to this 37-year-old single mother in Omaha to help defray the medical, dental and therapy bills that were caused by the first man.

As of Friday afternoon, an online campaign driven by Facebook and fueled by people in her hometown of Cozad had raised more than two-thirds of Jacey's $18,750 goal.

“I'm honored,” she said. “I'm dumbfounded.”

If the first man broke Jacey, the second man and all the rest have helped rebuild her. And it's that second man who symbolizes the goodness of others.

It can be frightening — and downright dangerous — for a victim to leave an abuser. Tara Muir, executive director of the Domestic Violence Council, cited research that shows violence escalates when the victim talks about leaving or has left.

Even reaching out for help can be nerve-racking given the complicated nature of domestic violence.

“Who wants to proclaim to the world you picked not only the wrong guy, but a really dangerous one?” Muir said. “It's hard enough for some victims to realize how damaging the emotional and psychological abuse can be until they are finally out from under it.”

That's why Jacey doesn't want to name her abuser, an on-again, off-again boyfriend.

Yes, she feels safer now that he's behind bars. He was convicted in September of making terroristic threats and attempted first-degree assault. He is serving a sentence of 21 to 25 years, which is cut in half under Nebraska law. He is appealing the length of his sentence.

Jacey remains hyper-vigilant. She cringes at the mention of his name.

Even doing this story caused a fair amount of anguish. With each shutter click from our photographer, Jacey heard the click of the police camera that documented her injuries more than a year ago.

Jacey Gengenbach had faced fear before. In 2009, she was pregnant with preeclampsia, a condition that can be deadly if untreated. She had an emergency C-section, delivered six weeks early and was hospitalized for five days for flash pulmonary edema. Jacey's lungs had filled with fluid. She felt like she was drowning.

But she survived.

Less than three years later, Jacey was back in the hospital having surgery to remove a large tumor behind her right eye. Blindness was a risk, and Jacey was terribly afraid of that. But the surgery went well and, by the end of the year, Jacey had paid off about $8,000 in medical bills.

Jacey survived this, too.

Things were looking up at the end of 2012. Jacey was settling into the northwest Omaha house she had bought the year before. She was preparing to open a personal training business, called Fitness & Beyond, near 74th and Pacific Streets. Jacey's specialty is people with Parkinson's disease.

But the ex-boyfriend re-­entered the picture. She'd told him they were through.

On a Sunday morning in November, he pulled his van into her driveway and kept calling and texting her. Jacey didn't answer. She called 911 instead and then, frantically, her friend Kim.

Where were the police?

Kim told her: “They gotta be coming, they gotta be coming.”

Jacey called 911 again. She remembers telling the operator that her ex-boyfriend was backing his van out and leaving. And then, grimly, she told 911 that he wasn't.

“I see the car go towards my home,” she said. “Then I'm screaming, 'He's ramming my house! He's ramming my garage!' The doors were deadbolted. The alarm was on. Then he came up in one big streak. I couldn't even react. He was up the stairs in a flash. I was in the hallway between all the bedrooms.” In one of those bedrooms was Jacey's 3-year-old son, and this man was not his father.

“The only thing I remember,” she said, “is his grunts. The 'UGH,' 'UGH,' 'UGH' for every blow.”

When she came to, police were swarming her house. And the click-click-click of a police officer's camera.

He had knocked out a tooth and chipped another. Her face was bloodied and bruised.

Jacey felt she couldn't tell anyone about the assault, especially her clients whom she feared losing if they knew the truth. She asked hospital staff how to explain her face.

A lot of people, a nurse said, use the car accident excuse.

So Jacey told everyone she'd been in a wreck. In a way, it was true.

“You go from being horrified,” Jacey said later, “to even more horrified.”

Jacey finally told her sister in Omaha and her parents in Cozad. She read a statement in court. She leaned on local agencies that serve victims of domestic violence. Jacey eventually shared her ordeal with friends.

One put her in touch with a small nonprofit, the Family Legal Project, which added up the cost of Jacey's oral surgery, dental work, medical and therapy bills.

Family Legal Project shared Jacey's story and her need with Red Basket, a nonprofit that lets people raise money for personal causes and takes steps to vet the cause.

And on Jan. 13, more than a year after she was attacked, Jacey consented to going public. Family Legal Project told Jacey's story on a Facebook fundraising page called Team Jacey with a request to save Jacey's smile.

Jacey was nervous. What would people say? What would they think?

It was one thing to tell a small, supportive circle. Speaking to the world was another.

But the world responded warmly. The world wanted to join Team Jacey and save her smile. The world sent in donations ranging from $5 to $5,000. People in Cozad gave Jacey's folks money. A Cozad nonprofit for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence pledged to donate most of its proceeds from a forthcoming annual 5K fundraiser to Jacey.

The world also responded in words. Her son's preschool teacher told Jacey how proud she was of her.

“You're going to help people,” the teacher said.

A medical receptionist confided to Jacey that she had been in her shoes before.

“You're going to be OK,” the woman said.

The victims' advocate who had held Jacey's hand in the emergency room wrote a tender Facebook message that described Jacey as an inspiration for those working in the trenches.

“I've held countless hands,” the advocate wrote. “You, Jacey, have left an imprint on my life and you have reminded me a lot lately of just how important this work is day in and day out.”

This embrace has empowered Jacey. It has emboldened her. It has made her wonder why she kept the abuse quiet.

It has made her wonder how many others have the same story.

Here's one measure: There are no seats left for an all-day event today for domestic violence survivors. And there's a waiting list.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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