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More Than 100 'Reach Out Toward the Light'

Oct. 21, 2004 – It was absolutely still in Emancipation Garden early Thursday evening. The only sound was the crystal clear voice of Michal Rhymer-Charles: "Where has my spirit disappeared to? Reach out toward the light."
The song continues, "Break the silence. Stop the violence," the theme of Thursday night's "Take Back the Night" march and candlelight vigil. It was Rhymer-Charles" 10th appearance at the annual ceremony, which she helped start as head of the Womens' Resource Center.
The event has grown over the years, proportionateley perhaps to the increased instances of domestic abuse, and the community's growing awareness of the issue. Thirty-seven persons have been murdered over the last 19 years in domestic violence disputes – 33 women, two men and two babies.
Thursday night a crowd of more than 100 marched up Government Hill behind the lively sounds of the Charlotte Amalie High School marching band, itself about 100-strong, and down to the Legislature grounds for a brief stop, and back to Emancipation Garden.
At the Legislature building, Sandra O. Hodge, the Family Resource Center's diminutive new executive director, climbed the stairs to the second floor where she led the crowd in a spirited rendition of the chant – "Take Back the Night, Shine the Light."
It was a disparate crowd, young, old, in business suits, in jeans. There were some senators, Louis Hill and Shawn-Michael Malone; some community activists, Jason Budsan with a sign hanging from his umbrella, "Stop the violence, rain or shine"; Alice Hamilton, one of the original voices in the domestic violence awareness movement; the "director emeritus," Raul Carrillo, Resource Center board president; Realtor April Newland with her 11-year-old daughter, Shannon; several members of the National Association of Social Workers; and perhaps a tourist or two.
But the crowd had one thing in common – a crying out to stop abuse of human beings, of one another. Pastor Ashley Estrada led an impassioned plea for "everybody" to help.
"Help the abusers, help them heal," he said.
The threat of rain with ominous skies didn't deter or dampen the spirit of the crowd. Thomas Boatwright, a familiar face at the ceremony, has been a volunteer at the Resource Center. "I have sat in on the men's groups," he said. "When the men see the cycle-effect abuse has on the children, then they see the light."
The agency is now called the Family Resource Center. Rhymer-Charles has moved on to the Department of Human Services where she is assistant executive director.
October is Domestic Violence Month, a time to remember and honor its victims in candlelight marches and sharing of stories, and to bring a heightened awareness of what has been described by experts as the seventh-ranked cause of death among women. In the V.I., thousands of women report domestic violence incidents each year.
Each year, according to the Family Resource Center, the Police Department receives more than 2,000 domestic violence calls. About 1,000 complaints are filed in Family Court territorywide.
Centers on all three islands offer help – the Women's Coalition on St. Croix, and the Safety Zone on St. John, as well as the Resource Center on St. Thomas.
What starts domestic abuse? Fear, say some. Fear and ignorance, perhaps. T-shirts from the Clothesline Project at Tutu Park Mall, hung from the park gazebo. The shirts tell stories of hurt, of misunderstandings. The messages are chilling: "I Hate You" on black in bright spangled colors; "I didn't understand what you did to me. Now, I know. It wasn't my fault!"; "You can batter my body, but you can't touch my spirit."
The evening ended with a candlelight reading of the names of the Virgin Islands' violence victims. The evening was dedicated to the memory of Natalie Connor, who was killed by her partner several years ago, leaving three children.
Soft music played in the background as the names were read. "These are people who once had a life and now they are no longer with us," said Hodge. The names were read, broken only with the admonition "remember these names; they were once alive with us."
The crowd stood holding candles, many with tears running down their faces as they listened to the names, and then joined hands in the final song, "Reach out and Touch Someone."

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