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Survivors gather to mourn, find support

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Annual Courage Walk draws 200 at Jeffco government center

By Ramsey Scott

One act of violence can have a lifetime of repercussions. 

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For most of the 200 or so people at this year’s Courage Walk at the Jeffco government center, those repercussions are well known. The event brings survivors and victims’ families together to pay tribute to those lost to violence and to survivors of violent acts. It concludes in the Courage Garden behind the Taj Mahal.

It also gives attendees a chance to connect with others who understand their pain. 

“Nobody else knows exactly how you feel, what we’ve gone through. You know, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But these are the people here who truly have an understanding of it,” said Earl Elder of Littleton, whose daughter Cher was murdered in Jeffco in 1993. “It’s like a giant group therapy session. You come back just to make sure everybody’s still OK and still getting down the road to life and living. 

“You love the people here, but you hate the reason you’re here to see them,” Elder said.

The event, in its 21st year, is both mournful and celebratory, said one of the founders, Vista Exline, director of the nonprofit Victim Outreach Inc. The group provides police-based victim services in most of Jeffco.  

“We’re celebrating life. We’re celebrating that we have each other and ourselves. We’ve figured out how to live again,” Exline said. “You smile through tears because you are overwhelmed with the fact that you’re with someone who gets it. And the tears are still there. It’s really important to share those tears with someone who understands and gets it.”

Exline said survivors often isolate themselves in the aftermath of violence; it’s important for the survivors, and for loved ones coping with a violent death, to have someone to reach out to.

“After an act of violence, survivors will say, ‘I don’t remember anything anybody said to me. I don’t remember anything anybody did. I don’t remember any information that was given to me,’ ” Exline said. “But what I do remember is who was there. I remember that I wasn’t alone. That’s a testament to the need for people to have another human being with them.”

For Donna Ortiz and her family, knowing they’re not alone in their loss has helped them begin to come to terms with the murder of her 21-year-old son, Billy, in 2009 in Denver. 

“It’s helping me deal with the empty heart and hole that we have,” Ortiz said. “It helps you understand there are other people going through the same thing we are going through.”

Exline said that while victims’ families and survivors have a special understanding, that doesn’t mean others can’t be a source of comfort. 

“Keep in mind that you can’t understand their loss. But you can acknowledge it. People need to be heard, they need a chance to talk about what happened, and they need to have their experience validated,” Exline said. “They either want to talk about it or they don’t. It’s important to read the cues. But it’s OK to say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss, and I know this must be so hard for you. And I just want you to know I’m here if you need to talk to somebody.’ ”

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine. Check www.columbinecourier.com for updates.