Rolling Meadows woman's legacy lives on in self-defense program

Losing a child is life-changing, but more than a decade after Shannon McNamara's brutal death, her parents take comfort in the fact that it isn't just their lives that have changed, but those of more than a million young girls worldwide.

After McNamara, a Rolling Meadows High School graduate, was murdered in her off-campus apartment at Eastern Illinois University in June 2001, friend Erin Weed started a program to spread a message of strength and self-defense.

The program, Girls Fight Back, returned to the suburbs last week to visit hundreds of junior and senior girls at Northwest Suburban Township District 214.

"I always knew that Shannon was special, but I didn't know how special she really was," said her mother, Cindy McNamara.

She said she believes it was part of God's plan to take Shannon, so her story could save and inspire so many others.

The night before Shannon's wake, Erin and several other friends discussed how afraid they were - to shower in an empty apartment, to walk down the street, to sleep in their own homes.

To overcome those fears, Erin signed up for self-defense classes, and the program snowballed from there.

"She started out wanting to protect herself and learn to live without fear, and it grew into such a big organization," Cindy said. "I just try to catch my breath when I look back and realize it's all in Shannon's memory and honor. That's what I focus on, her legacy instead of her death."

Shannon fought back during the attack in her apartment, and police found enough evidence on her body to convict her killer.

"He was there to do her harm, and she was going to fight to the very end, which she did - and she caught him red-handed," Cindy said.

This is the second time the program has been brought to District 214, and Lee Stanley, associate principal at Rolling Meadows High School, said it will continue to be available to junior and senior girls every other year going forward. Moms and all female staff members are also invited.

"Sometimes something bad needs to happen for you to realize how important this is, and I don't want anything to happen to these girls," Stanley said. "We have an obligation not only to educate them, but we morally need to be doing something to keep them safe when they leave this place."

According to statistics compiled by Girls Fight Back, one in four women experience attempted or actual rape during their college years, and college women are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other age group.

"It can be an awesome time in their life, but it can be a scary time. We just want to give them tools to make them feel empowered, carry themselves in a confident way and know that they're worth fighting for," said Bree Swartz, a Girls Fight Back speaker who led the program in Arlington Heights on Tuesday.

"Every female is their own best protector. Learn to trust your intuitions," Swartz said.

The program teaches girls simple self-defense techniques - such as recognizing where an attacker is vulnerable and what tools a girl may have at her disposal to fight back.

The program also recommends that girls take another full self-defense class through their local police department or park district to learn more.

Tips for walking to your apartment or car at night resonate with Prospect High School senior Meghan Grott, who said she worries about those things since she's going to college next year.

"If I'm going to get beat by an attacker, I'd like to know that I had the tools to fight back," Grott said.

Past experience brought Rebecca Chen, a junior at Buffalo Grove High School, to the program. Her mother is a rape survivor.

"I gained a lot of courage in myself and the ability to speak out toward others," Chen said. "I'm scared an attacker will come up, but this helps build confidence for the future."

Cindy McNamara said attending the program in Arlington Heights last week did her a lot of good. She sees a whole new generation of girls hearing Shannon's story and being changed by her message.

Hearing the introduction to the program, which includes the story of Shannon's death, was difficult for Cindy and a few of Shannon's friends who were there. But the success of the program and the number of lives Shannon has changed bring comfort.

"I don't want to dwell on the bad stuff," Cindy said. "When I get to that dark place, I always remember the good things that came out of this."

Aside from Girls Fight Back, the McNamaras also have scholarships in Shannon's name at Rolling Meadows High School and Eastern Illinois University.

Cindy said the family is finding peace in new life these days as Shannon's younger brother is expecting his first child.

Erin Weed is expecting a baby girl in June, the same month as Shannon's birthday and the month she was killed.

"It's like Shannon telling us it's time to celebrate that month instead of grieving, and I agree," Cindy said. "This (Girls Fight Back) is her legacy, and, wow, if only we could all have such a legacy."

Tribute: Self-defense program available to junior, senior girls

  Bree Swartz talks to Gabriela Vaca, 17, of Des Plaines who attends Elk Grove High School and Gabriela Viveros about self-defense. Mark Welsh/
Erin Weed, founder of Girls Fight Back
High school girls participating in the Girls Fight Back self-defense seminar after Rolling Meadows graduate Shannon McNamara was murdered in 2001. Daily Herald File Photo
Girls Fight Back founder Erin Weed demonstrates self-defense moves as part of the program she started after her sorority sister and Rolling Meadows High School graduate Shannon McNamara was murdered in 2001. Daily Herald File Photo
Shannon E. McNamara
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