Sunrise of Pasco County will take over Agnes Lamb Park in Dade City on Oct. 17 with its annual candlelight vigil.
It’s the 17th annual event for the domestic and sexual violence center, but will be the first one with a new chief executive officer, Kelly Sinn.
She took over for longtime leader Penny Morrill, who retired in May after 27 years at the helm.
There is no other job more important to Sinn than helping victims of domestic violence. Yet it wasn’t always that way. In fact, when Sinn first joined Sunrise 11 years ago as an advocate in the women’s shelter, doing such work was the last thing on her mind.
“I had no idea what domestic violence was. I was very naïve,” Sinn said. “I didn’t even know agencies like this existed.”
Sinn was introduced to Sunrise through another family member who was a children’s counselor there at the time. Although she was still a college student, Sinn had no trouble getting through the interview. But Sinn didn’t fully realize what she was getting into until she took a tour of the Dade City facility and its 24-bed shelter.
“We walked out into the back, and the first thing I saw was a mom,” Sinn said. “She had a couple kids there with her, and what I remember the most was that she had a huge black eye. I stopped and smiled and said hello, but it was kind of surreal.”
Later, a meeting broke up and all of the women who had taken part were crying. Sinn said she was worried something terrible had happened during their counseling session, but it was actually the exact opposite: They were tears of joy.
“Whatever was discussed in that group, it was so powerful to them and impacted them so much,” Sinn said. “They cried because they were happy, they were safe, and were stronger for themselves and their children. I realized I really wanted to be able to impact somebody’s life like that.”
Sinn switched majors from business to social work, and as she progressed in her education, she rose in the ranks at Sunrise, becoming its chief operating officer in 2010.
She takes over an organization that has grown from just one employee and a $35,000 budget three decades ago, to one that now operates on $1.5 million a year, with 34 staff members. It’s also in the middle of expanding its shelter from 24 beds to 40. Yet the focus of Sunrise has never changed — helping the victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
In 2010, more than 113,000 crimes of domestic violence were reported to police in Florida, according to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Yet, many more go unreported.
“Fear is typically the No. 1 reason victims stay in an abusive relationship,” Sinn said. “But fear is also the No. 1 reason why they will get out of a relationship as well, because they are afraid of what will happen if they continue to stay.”
However, many abuse victims get caught in a cycle where they return to the person who abused them in the first place. Sometimes they can go back as many as 10 times before they finally stay away, Sinn said.
“When women and children come into our facility and into our shelter, many times they have very low self-esteem,” Sinn said. “But seeing how they progress once they get here, where they have a new home that is safe, and how far they’ve come, that’s so powerful.”
The candlelight vigil begins at 6 p.m. at the park, which is located in the heart of Dade City’s downtown. Besides the hundreds of lit candles, one of the more moving displays is the dozens of T-shirts hung from clotheslines designed by domestic violence victims.
It’s part of The Clothesline Project, created by a group of women in 1990 after they discovered that during the Vietnam War, 51,000 women were killed in domestic violence incidents — at the same time 58,000 soldiers were killed in the conflict.
The shirts themselves come in various colors, each with its own meaning. A white shirt represents a woman who died from domestic violence. Yellow or beige is for those who have been battered or assaulted. Red, pink and orange are for survivors of rape and sexual assault. Blue and green represent survivors of incest and sexual abuse. And purple or lavender represents women attacked because of their sexual orientation.
Messages on the shirt can range from short statements like, “You may have defeated me, but you will not destroy me,” to longer stories and poems.
“Every year, we use domestic violence month to acknowledge and honor the survivors that have been able to escape abusive homes, and remember those who have lost their lives,” Sinn said. “We shed light on all of this, for those who are still living in those types of situations, with the hope that they’ll seek out help.”
The candlelight vigil is not a fundraiser for the group, which operates on donations and grants. Yet anyone interested in helping out Sunrise can call (352) 567-1681, or visit www.SunrisePasco.org.