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Personal stories and solidarity mark HopeWorks event for domestic violence prevention

Dawn Root's life took a serendipitous turn two years ago, one that eventually brought her to Columbia this week to talk about her mother's death.

She spoke as an advocate and survivor Tuesday at the fifth annual candlelight vigil held by HopeWorks at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, marking October's designation as Domestic Violence Awareness Month across the country.

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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."

HopeWorks, which changed its name from the Domestic Violence Center in December, is an agency that serves victims of sexual, dating and domestic violence.

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Before the event, Root, a Glen Burnie resident, revealed that 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.

They reminded her of her mother, Barbara Ann Root, who was divorced from Dawn's father and had 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 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.

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Root, who had never thought about 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.

Root says there are still some parts of her story that are difficult to articulate, but she hopes hearing it will encourage communities to pledge to provide quality services and programs that can "change the conditions and combat the violence."

"Dawn is brave enough to share her personal story, and that takes a lot of guts," said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of HopeWorks, as she introduced Root to the audience Tuesday.

Root's voice faltered a couple times and she wiped away tears at the lectern as she painted a portrait of her mother as a loving woman who 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."

Before Root's speech, Howard County Police Detective David Vo spoke of the need for community members to band together with survivors to eliminate domestic violence because they are "fingers on the same hand."

He also said the county's police force, which has a domestic violence unit, reviewed 3,499 domestic violence reports in 2013.

"Most likely there were many more [incidents that year] that were not reported," Vo said.

After the speeches, all attending were invited to pin their handwritten messages of solidarity on a display board. "We all deserve love" and "Everyone deserves to feel safe" were common themes.

Jennifer Murphy-Glenn, who volunteers as a hospital advocate for victims and also shops for groceries for the HopeWorks pantry, was one of those who read their written sentiments aloud to the audience.

During the lighting of candles and moment of silence that followed, she 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," said Murphy-Glenn, a Catonsville resident.

"It took a lot of courage for Dawn to stand up and speak. I am hoping to study to be a lawyer so I can help domestic violence victims."

Pollitt Hill, who took over as HopeWorks executive director in February 2012, said that the agency's records reveal that it saw 3,590 clients and logged 2,000 hotline calls in fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30.

While that's an increase from 1,970 clients logged in 2004, the numbers are similar to 2011, when 3,300 clients were seen and 2,200 calls tallied, she said.

"We don't believe these numbers are rising because there's been actual change, but because more people are asking for help," Pollitt Hill said.

The center's operating budget also remains nearly unchanged at $1.8 million in fiscal year 2014. Nearly 75 percent of the center's funding is derived from local, state and federal grants.

One figure that has changed is the amount of money raised through fundraising efforts — 20 percent today, compared to 11 percent four years ago. That change is due in part to greater outreach efforts sparked by diminished sources of grant funds, Pollitt Hill said.

Some of the center's newer programs include a women's circle, a legacy club for men and boys, an annual arts magazine and a book club, said Vanita Leatherwood, director of community engagement.

The expanded emphasis on wellness and community-building aligns with the HopeWorks philosophy that "prevention work is the bottom line for changing the culture" of domestic violence, Leatherwood said.

"We want to use every way possible to let people know that treatment and intervention are available here," she said.

Pollitt Hill brought the candlelight vigil to a close by emphasizing that a pledge of solidarity "requires us [as community members] to be on the other end when someone needs help."

"We need to figure out what our place is in being there [for victims] and how to bring about change in our collective suffering," she said. "Ending domestic violence is our greatest responsibility to those who have paid the ultimate price."

Detailed information about HopeWorks' programs and services is available at wearehopeworks.org.

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