DASI Honors Survivors and Victims with Annual Candlelight Vigil
DASI Associate Director Gwen Federico speaks at the group's annual Candlelight Vigil at the Sussex County Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.
By Mandy Coriston Newton- Sussex County Community College Tuesday night hosted a poignant Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Intervention (DASI) Services candlelight vigil, which remembered the lives of those lost to domestic abuse, honored the courage of survivors, and provided DASI the venue to present its annual Full Circle Award to a survivor who now helps others. The vigil was attended by DASI staff and volunteers, domestic and sexual abuse survivors, local dignitaries, members of the Newton Police Department, the public, and DASI supporters. Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch, State Senator Steven Oroho (R-24), and Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24) spoke, as did DASI Associate Director Gwen Federico and the Full Circle Award winner, a courageous young woman named Jennifer. Greeters were dressed in purple, the color of domestic violence awareness, and information tables displayed powerful poetry from DASI’s Rise Up! poetry group, along with a decorative tree. A sign on the tree invited people to write a line of poetry and “take a token of their strength to remind you of your own.” Another display was entitled “Take a Walk in Her Shoes” in which framed poetry and decorated shoes the highlighted raw emotion of victims and survivors. A striking contrast to the minimally decorated stage was that of four red, wooden silhouettes representing lives recently lost in New Jersey to domestic violence, including Sussex County resident Loretta Salokas, who was shot dead by her husband of 59 years in their Franklin home last June. Prior to the program, Sen. Oroho said he was tremendously grateful to have never had to have personally dealt with domestic abuse, but was honored to be a part of the event. “These numbers are staggering,” he said, “12 million victims every year, 24 people per minute. I just had two new grandchildren and I can’t even imagine…you just pray every day these things DON’T happen.” The senator also praised the work of the people at DASI. “They really address the need to raise awareness and provide education,” Oroho said, “People need to know how to help a friend in need, and properly deal with law enforcement, and learn how to break the cycle before children learn a propensity for abuse.” Assemblyman Hal Wirths said that as a husband and a father, the scope of the domestic and sexual violence statistics was hard for him to comprehend. “This is an event that’s great to have, but sad that we HAVE to have,” Wirths said, “We need to keep attention focused on this issue, and we need to have zero tolerance for the people who commit these crimes.” Wirths also said he knows it’s a tough reality that many domestic crimes often go unreported out of fear, but he hopes that with the work of groups like DASI, more people will feel compelled to come forward. Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch called the program appropriately solemn, saying, “It’s wonderful to have this, to pay tribute to survivors, to reflect on what this evening really means, and honor those who’ve died.” Koch also said that the fight against domestic abuse must be fought together. “This can’t be solved with just law enforcement, this can’t be solved with just DASI, it can’t be solved with other programs alone,” he said, “People need to get involved, and we, as a county and community, need to show that we will not tolerate one more death or one more attack.” Dawn Penna, DASI’s director of Residential Services greeted attendees. Before turning the floor over to Associate Director Federico, Penna said that in the year since their last vigil, DASI served more than 1,000 clients. Federico noted the strength of abuse survivors and honored those lost to abuse. “Many people face so many barriers every day,” she said, “and we’ve been seeing them do it for a long time. DASI will be turning 35 next year.” She invited Sen. Oroho and Assemblyman Wirths to the stage and Wirths said it he was honored to be at the event emphasized zero tolerance. Sen. Oroho, read a proclamation from the governor declaring October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. “I can’t thank DASI enough for the work you do for victims, for giving us the education to know how to help," Oroho said. "It’s so important we have awareness about this.” He also addressed the survivors in the room. “Thank you,” he said, “It’s your stories, your survival, and your courage that inspires others.” Koch spoke of the time spent working together with the prosecutor hover the last two decades. “We’ve grown up together in this fight against domestic abuse,” she said, “Twenty years ago, we came at it from different angles and had to learn to work with each other to alleviate these issues.” Koch expressed appreciation to Senator Oroho and Assemblyman Wirths. “Thank you,” he said, “and Assemblyman (Parker) Space, too, for being advocates for this cause.” Koch then said he agreed with Federico’s assessment. “It’s been twenty years, and we began by butting heads. But we now fully understand each other’s roles in how we handle domestic abuse and sexual violence here in Sussex County.” Koch also gave a nod to all the people in his office and beyond for their support. “We have to make sure we don’t get jaded,” he said, “From my staff to the law enforcement officers who’ve really embraced community policing, and are willing to serve as witness investigators and protect victims.” He indicated the four uniformed Newton Police Department personnel flanking the door; Sgt. Mike Monaco, and Patrolmen John Flanagan, Jared Zappa, and Donald Meisinger. “We’ve got to remember that every victim is different,” Koch said, “They react differently, they report their abuses differently, and they deserve to be treated with respect.” He thanked DASI for unending support of abuse victims and noted efforts can't be limited to October. “This is an evening of reflection and remembrance,” the prosecutor continued, “and no words can adequately express our grief at losing members of our community, but no problem has one simple answer. We must continue to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and honor those we lost in the most profound way.” Federico explained that tonight's award goes to someone who has come “full circle” from victim to survivor to “thriver" helping others. “This is a young woman who came to us for services many years ago, and recently reconnected with us by joining our Rise Up! Poetry group,” Federico said, “and what a voice she is!” Federico’s voice cracked as she welcomed a young lady named Jennifer to the stage. In an unwavering tone, Jennifer said she’d been the victim of childhood sexual abuse for 13 years. When she finally spoke up, “the abuse was over, and the task of healing began.” Jennifer credited DASI for recovery tools. “I didn’t talk much about my abuse though,” she said, “because I didn’t want to feel vulnerable. But the #metoo movement sparked something in me. My voice may have started as a whisper, but last year, I took a stand. I’m here to tell you ‘you can. You can climb up from rock bottom, because rock bottom is a base to stand on. And you can have hope; hope is our greatest building block.” Jennifer said her best advice is to never give up and to take any help offered. “I was lucky to have the support of my mother and the support of DASI. Lean on others to get you through.” Jennifer said she wants to see a society where the stigma surrounding sexual abuse is gone. “So many people have a fear of not being believed,” she said, “For every assault reported, there are two that are not.” Jennifer’s courageous speech was met with a standing ovation. The event then moved outside for the candlelight vigil. Police and prosecutor, legislators and constituents, survivors and activists; all raised one voice to sing “Amazing Grace” led by a young man named Matt Wright. As the candles flickered and the hymn trailed off, people seemed lost in their own silent reflections on the evening. One by one, the candles were snuffed in succession, marking the end of another year’s campaign to end domestic abuse and assault. DASI is a private, non-profit 501(c)3 organization which provides a variety of scheduled and emergency services to victims and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. They can be reached online at www.dasi.org, or by calling 973-579-2368 during business hours. For emergencies, DASI offers a 24-hour helpline at 973-875-1211. The Sussex County Prosecutor’s office also offers victim and witness advocates, and works with the New Jersey State Police and municipal police departments to provide Domestic Violence Response Teams. More information can be obtained by calling the prosecutor’s office at 973-383-1570.