Communities of Light event calls county residents to learn about domestic violence

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It may be just a candle in a sand-filled bag, but to a victim of domestic violence, it can help to light the way out of a dim situation through Womanspace’s annual Communities of Light domestic violence awareness campaign.

Womanspace, which helps victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, sells luminary kits that contain candles, paper bags and sand. The kits, which cost $10 each, are available at many Mercer County businesses.

Communities of Light, which is Womanspace’s signature fundraising event, will culminate on Dec. 2 when households in Lawrence Township and other Mercer County towns place candles in the sand-filled bags and put them out in front of their homes.

The Lawrence Township Council declared Dec. 2 as Communities of Light Day in a proclamation issued by Mayor Christopher Bobbitt at the council’s Nov. 8 meeting.

“Womanspace, in the belief that ‘peace begins at home,’ has asked the Mercer County community to join them in their struggle against violence toward women by participating in their annual Communities of Light project,” Bobbitt said, reading from the proclamation.

“Lawrence Township commends Womanspace for their efforts to bring an end to the cycle of interpersonal violence imposed on women, children and men, and Lawrence Township is honored that Womanspace has chosen to locate their headquarters in our community,” the proclamation said.

The proceeds from Communities of Light 2019 will be used to fund vital services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, the proclamation said.

“As Mayor of Lawrence Township, I urge that each and every household demonstrate their support of the concept of ‘peace begins at home’ by placing luminaries along their driveways and sidewalks on Dec. 2 as a visible symbol of that support,” Bobbitt said as he read from the proclamation.

In addition to raising money to support Womanspace’s programs, Communities of Light seeks to raise public awareness about domestic violence and the availability of counseling and other resources for victims through the agency.

Those resources include emergency housing in a confidential location for victims of domestic violence, as well as domestic violence victim response teams. The teams meet with victims at municipal police departments, at the victim’s request. The trained volunteers provide support and resources for the victim.

Similar services are provided to victims of sexual assault through the Sexual Assault Support Advocates program, also staffed by trained volunteers. They may help by accompanying the victim to the hospital emergency room.

Since the mid-1990’s, police departments have been required to have a domestic violence victims response team, said Patricia Hart, the executive director of Womanspace.

The volunteer members of the team receive 40 hours of training in domestic violence and 40 hours of training in sexual assault. They offer support and guidance to the victims.

“Between Womanspace and the police departments, we recruit, interview, screen and train the team members together,” Hart said.

When a victim calls the local police department for help, the dispatcher alerts the domestic violence victims response team, Hart said. While the police are investigating the incident, a volunteer will meet with the victim and serve as an advocate.

“These are just people who want to help. It sends a very powerful message when community residents come out at 2 a.m. to help,” Hart said.

“The team member could stay with a victim for 20 minutes, or it could be three hours. However long it lasts, the volunteer is there. This couldn’t happen without the partnership of the police departments,” she said.

Womanspace offers counseling for victims on a family, group or individual basis, Hart said. The nonprofit group also helps to guide victims through the restraining order process, which keeps abusers away from victims, in Mercer County Family Court.

Womanspace has its roots in the Mercer County Commission on the Status of Women, which was created in 1976. During the initial public meetings, the issue of domestic violence came to the forefront, according to www.womanspace.org.

As a result of those meetings, a proposal was developed to provide services to women in crisis. The effort was spearheaded by the late Barbara Boggs Sigmund, who was serving on the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders. She later became the mayor of the former Princeton Borough.

Sigmund, who is considered to the founder of Womanspace, signed the original certificate of incorporation for the nonprofit group in 1977, along with co-signers Deborah Metzger, Mary Ann Cannon, Ellen Belknapand Valorie Caffee.

Since 1977, it has helped 71,393 women, 13,717 children and 5,153 men who have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. It has assisted more than 277,877 hotline callers in the last 42 years.

A list of the businesses that sell the Communities of Light luminary kits is available at www.womanspace.org.