By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
The rain came and went, and shortly before six p.m. Friday evening, a few people were drying off the rows of folding chairs in front of the court house. Others struggled with the poster boards that kept trying to take flight on the strong, random gusts of wind.
Representatives from Refuge House, Whole Child and St. Leo University had tables full of information laid out for people as they gathered that Oct. 7 evening under an overcast sky to hear Sheila Combs and several other speakers, including Supervisor of Elections Jada Woods Williams, Vice-Mayor Myra Valentine, Beth Ebberson of the Junior Auxiliary, Colonel Tamera Poynter (one of five women who have achieved that rank in the Florida Department of Corrections) representing Madison Correctional Institute, Debra McGrew, District III Supervisor of Refuge House and Kaomi Ghent.
“People ask, ‘why don’t you just leave?’” said Combs in her opening speech, alluding to the fact that many women may feel trapped in such relationships, or be unable to leave for a variety of reasons; at least, not without a helping hand reaching out to them from a friend, a relative or an organization such as Refuge House. “Until you have walked in that person’s shoes, please do not be judgmental, be supportive.”
Strong gusts of wind prevented Combs from lighting a candle in memory of those who had lost their lives at the hand of an abuser, but she asked everyone present to simply imagine the candle lit and spreading its glow for those who didn’t make it.
She also made a point of thanking Madison Police Chief Gary Calhoun for his attendance and show of support for Refuge House.
Several other speakers continued undeterred by the occasional poster or handfuls of papers that went flying on the gusts of wind. Jada Woods Williams had strong words of hope and encouragement for victims of domestic violence, and Myra Valentine read a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Jim Catron, naming October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Beth Ebberson announced that the Junior Auxiliary had put together 56 emergency bags of toiletry items for women who had had to flee suddenly from dangerous situations. Col. Tamera Poynter said that MCI employees had gathered items of clothing for Refuge House, and added, to a round of applause, that the Department of Corrections had a zero tolerance for domestic violence, “and we need to have a zero tolerance for it everywhere.”
“I am the face of domestic violence,” said Kaomi Ghent, a survivor. “The faces are old and young, men and women, of every race, creed and color.”
Like many, she had once thought that domestic violence happened only to poor and uneducated women, yet even though she was a bright college student from a Christian family with many plans for the future, and had met a young man who seemed to have many of those same qualities, she found herself trapped in a two-year nightmare of violence she described as “vicious.”
“My final encounter with that young man was when paramedics were standing over my broken body,” said Ghent.
In the intervening years, she had met and married another young man who was kind, wonderful, “and taught me to love without fear.” She spoke not only as a survivor, but as a witness that pain can be overcome and lives can be rebuilt. She now has her B.A. in psychology and counsels other women in distress.
“Education and awareness are important,” said Ghent, who had missed the red flags and warning signs of a violent personality in the first young man because she hadn’t known about them.
“Self-esteem is another important tool, because there is still a lot of shame connected to it (domestic violence),” she said. Women need to realize that they are entitled to respect and that no one has the right to abuse them – and that takes courage.
“I was made for God, by God,” she said, and closed her remarks with a hymn she described as a song of hope, belting out a powerful rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
As Debra McGrew closed, thanking everyone for their support in coming out to celebrate the lives of survivors, a rogue gust of wind overturned baskets of brochures on the tables and sent a blizzard of papers flying into the courthouse shrubbery.
Moments later, the women gathered around the large rubber tub filled with the 56 emergency bags of toiletry items. The only things unmoved by the strong, gusting winds all evening, each bag bore the inscription: “Because I am a Woman, I am Strong.”
For more information about Refuge House, or to set up counseling sessions, call (850) 973-4144. To reach the 24-hour crisis hotline, call 1-800-500-1119, or call 911 for any emergency situation where you need immediate help.