Speaking out, standing vigil: Hundreds gather downtown to end domestic violence

Carmen Vargas, the victim advocate at Kissimmee Police Department, speaks at a candlelight vigil in front of police headquarters on Oct. 10.

Editor’s Note: October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the Osceola News-Gazette will publish another story on the topic in next week’s edition.

“Stop the violence! Spread the love!”

It was the chant the mother of five, Sherrelle Jackson, and her children led during last week’s march to end domestic violence in downtown Kissimmee.

The Kissimmee family was part of a crowd of about 500 people who gathered on the evening of Oct. 10 to rally, march and stand vigil to end violence against women and children.

The event kicked-off National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Osceola County. Organized by Help Now of Osceola and in its 12th year, the event aimed to get the public’s attention. And with the help of local law enforcement, the crowd shut down Broadway and got it.

Some marchers, like Jackson and her family, chanted with determination. Others walked in silence. The mood was both somber and uplifting.

Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior that’s part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and emotional and psychological abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence varies dramatically case by case.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner violence. An abuser’s access to a firearm increases the risk of a woman’s chance of being murdered by her partner by 400 percent.

Domestic violence is prevalent in every community, according to the coalition, and affects all people regardless of age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.

Physical violence is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior, the devastating consequences of which can cross generations and last a lifetime, according to the coalition.

But the event in downtown Kissimmee centered on honoring those who have endured domestic violence and remembering those whose lives have been lost.

Local government and law enforcement officials and advocates shared stories of how domestic violence has touched their lives; others pledged their continuing support to stop the violence.

Local survivors shared their personal stories of anguish, some for the first time.

Standing at a podium in front of the Osceola County Courthouse, Crystal Hernandez told the crowd that her story of domestic violence started when she was a child and grew up watching her mother suffer abuse.

By 2015, Hernandez had broken free of her own violent relationship with support from Help Now, but she still struggled.

“I never understood how to cope with all the feelings and the trauma...so I turned to drugs and alcohol for a long time to kind of help me deal with those feelings,” she said.

She attended that year’s domestic violence awareness rally and had an epiphany.

“When I came to this rally, I remember being so shocked that all these people were standing up for exactly what I was going through,” Hernandez said.

As she marched through downtown Kissimmee, there was “so much going through my mind, like man, I could really change my life. This could be the last time I ever have to go through this,” she said.

She asked an advocate for help with her substance abuse, got treatment and has been sober for three years. She’s in a healthy marriage now and just bought a house and has “never looked back,” she told the silent crowd.

“I want everyone to know, especially if you’re in the audience, standing out here and you’re going through what I was going through in 2015, and this is very overwhelming. Know that you don’t ever have to suffer through this again. There’s absolutely a different way of life. Help Now changed everything for me and all of these officials and all of the law enforcement, they’re here to protect you. You don’t have to be afraid to ask for help.”