Although the thermometer dipped to chilly environs the morning of May 2, the warmth among people gathered under pavilion No. 6 at Clement Park was palpable.
They were about to embark on the 16th annual Courage Walk, in which crime victims and their families joined with victim advocates in a fund-raiser that brought in $3,268. The proceeds from the event, which coincided with National Crime Victims Rights Week, will help maintain the Courage Garden at the Jeffco Courts and Administration Building.
Led by three mounted deputies, the group of about 100 people made their way along a mile-long path through Clement Park, passing close to the entrance to the Columbine Memorial — another coincidence that proved significant for many participants.
"This is a powerful place we're in right now," Rhonda Fields told the group after the walk. Fields' son Javod Marshall-Fields was murdered June 20, 2005, at an Aurora intersection along with his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Marshall-Fields was scheduled to testify in a murder trial a week after his death. His murderer, Sir Mario Owens, was convicted of the slayings and is on death row.
Nearly four years later, his mother found herself talking to other crime victims and to the volunteers who help them work through their grief and the often-complicated legal system.
"I did not sign up to be a victim. It was forced on me by the death of my son," Fields said, as she praised the work of victim advocates in Aurora who helped her. "It took someone like that to calm me down."
Fields said she has to "fake herself out" every day to convince herself she can get out of bed, brush her teeth and go to work. But, she said, those small victories represent courage for crime victims — the courage to carry on in the face of devastating events.
"Courage is simple things," Fields said. "As long as we pray for each other, we lift each other up."
Several victim advocates also spoke to the gathering, including Vista Exline, founder of Victim Outreach Information, a Jeffco nonprofit that supports victims of crime and trauma.
"My heart is full when we all gather together," Exline told the crowd through tears. Exline, who founded VOI in 1986, has been a part of all 16 Courage Walks, and she said they were started as a way to "recognize what it takes to survive crime."
Through her work as a victim advocate and seeing people come to the Courage Walk year after year, Exline finds continual inspiration.
"It's remarkable how people learn to smile again," she said.
It is indeed remarkable that victims can bounce back from the crimes referred to on the T-shirts hanging from a clothesline at the May 2 event. The shirts were created by crime victims as part of the Clothesline Project.
One shirt, written in the handwriting of a child, read: "Daddy, quit hurting my heart." Another was torn to shreds, signifying the devastation of incest.
Jeffco’s top two law enforcement officers, Sheriff Ted Mink and District Attorney Scott Storey, walked with the victims and their families.
"Sometimes victims and the families are the unsung heroes in a lot of ways," Storey told the group.
Kevin Paletta, Lakewood's police chief, said the law enforcement community has come a long way when it comes to recognizing victims and the value of victim advocates.
"But we have a long way to go as well," he said, noting that the city of Lakewood didn't have a victim advocate until the mid-1980s. Now his department has six.
Rose Moniak knows first-hand about the need for victim advocates. Moniak, 78, was robbed and beaten while working for a casino bus company in Lakewood in February 2006. She nearly died after suffering a brain hemorrhage and numerous broken bones.
May 2 marked her second year at the Courage Walk.
"This certainly has a lot of meaning for me," Moniak said. In fact, the work of victim advocates moves her so much that, after she recovers from a leg ailment, she plans to volunteer.
"It's heartwarming," she said, gazing at those assembled May 2. "I feel overwhelmed when I see that so many people care."
The "one good thing" that came from Moniak’s near-death experience was meeting the victim advocates and Storey — for whom she has great affection, after her attacker was handed a 48-year sentence in January 2007.
"It's made a difference in my life in more ways than one," Moniak said. "I'm just overwhelmed."