Dawn Root's life took a serendipitous turn two years ago, one that eventually brought her to talk about her mother's death as a way to fight domestic violence.
The Glen Burnie resident spoke as an advocate and survivor Tuesday at the fifth annual candlelight vigil held by HopeWorks, a Howard County agency that serves victims of sexual, dating and domestic violence. The event, held in Columbia, marked October's designation as Domestic Violence Awareness Month across the country.
Root told the gathering of 40 people wearing purple ribbons that she is on a mission to speak to audiences across the Baltimore area "since living in the darkness wasn't serving me, and I realized it was time to leave negativity behind."
The catalyst for her journey into advocacy was the sight of hot-air balloons dotting the sky over a Pennsylvania countryside one late-summer day in 2012, Root said before the event.
They reminded her of her mother, Barbara Ann Root, who was divorced from Dawn's father and operated a balloon delivery business for years before she was shot to death on Sept. 26, 2000, by her then-husband.
Resolving to attend a hot-air balloon event in her mother's memory, Dawn Root discovered the Rising Above It Festival Weekend sponsored every September by the Sexual Abuse/Spousal Assault Resource Center based in Harford County.
The festival was sold out, but a phone call to SARC to see if she could still attend led to Root's recounting her story of loss — and that led to organizers asking her to fill in for the keynote speaker who had canceled only 72 hours before their gala.
Root, who had never thought of speaking publicly about her personal tragedy, nervously agreed.
That first experience talking about her mother's death from multiple gunshot wounds proved to be cathartic, she said. The shooter turned the gun on himself after taking her mother's life, leaving no opportunity for Root, who was 30 at the time, to seek justice in court.
"Dawn is brave enough to share her personal story, and that takes a lot of guts," Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of HopeWorks, told audience members Tuesday as she introduced Root.
Though her voice faltered a couple of times and she wiped away tears at the lectern, Root painted a portrait of her mother as a loving woman who enthusiastically delivered balloons dressed as a gorilla, clown or teddy bear, among other entrepreneurial duties.
"I wish she'd had resources like HopeWorks, because I believe if she had I would not be mourning her," she told the gathering. "What hurts the most is that this could have been prevented."
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime and an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
During the lighting of candles and moment of silence that followed the speeches, Jennifer Murphy-Glenn of Catonsville sobbed softly in her seat and dabbed at tears streaming down her cheeks.
"I've had personal experience with family members being victims of domestic violence. Physical, verbal, financial, emotional abuse — I've seen it all," Murphy-Glenn, who volunteers with HopeWorks, said in a later interview.
"It took a lot of courage for Dawn to stand up and speak," she said. "I am hoping to study to be a lawyer so I can help domestic violence victims."
Root said after the ceremony that she believes it's her purpose to share her story as a show of solidarity with survivors.
"If I can help one other person come out of the darkness, then I have turned my darkest day into my greatest gift," she said.