A participant in last year’s vigil holds a purple heart, the color for domestic violence awareness. (Courtesy Armando “OUTthere” Diaz)
A participant in last year’s vigil holds a purple heart, the color for domestic violence awareness. (Courtesy Armando “OUTthere” Diaz)

Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates, known as S.O.F.I.A., will be holding its annual candlelight vigil to promote domestic violence awareness on Monday, Oct. 24, in Crane Park from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. 

For the past eight years, Crane Park has been the communal space for victims, advocates and allies to show their support for one another. 

Though the event is meant to be a night of fellowship and awareness, the vigil and park are bittersweet reminders for the founder of S.O.F.I.A., Cynthia Walker. 

In 2008, Walker spoke with Joanne Paul whose daughter, Monica Paul, was fatally shot at the Montclair YMCA, across the street from Crane Park, by her former boyfriend, the father of her two children. Despite having a restraining order, Paul was killed in front of her daughter and her son, who was attending swimming lessons at the Y at the time. 

This prompted Walker in 2009 to start S.O.F.I.A., a nonprofit that provides assistance to victims of domestic violence. Through S.O.F.I.A., Walker set out to create a space for victims to reclaim their autonomy after escaping their situations. 

Though S.O.F.I.A. is open to all victims of domestic violence, it specifically aims to reach Black and brown communities. 

Kristin Wald, vice president of the nonprofit’s board, spoke to the feelings of shame that those who are a part of marginalized communities feel when disclosing that they’re suffering abuse. “There is a certain reticence if you’re in a community, that is, any kind of minority, whether it’s numerically minority or not … you don’t want to admit it, because you feel like you’re representing your whole community,” Wald said. 

S.O.F.I.A. sets out to let those who are victims know that they shouldn’t have anything to be ashamed of, that domestic violence is common. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in nine men experience some form of intimate partner violence in the United States. In New Jersey, 35.8% of women and 27.4% of men will be victims of intimate partner abuse, whether it be in the form of stalking, physical violence or rape.

Many victims may not realize that they’re dealing with intimate partner violence until years later. Wald says she sees this happen frequently in the workshops that S.O.F.I.A. holds, like the “Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships: Recognizing the Clues” workshop.

“Many times, what we also find is that people just have trouble sometimes naming that what they’ve gone through is domestic violence, or is an abusive relationship,” she said.

Through the workshops, people learn the different ways in which abuse can manifest itself.

“It can be just a relief  to be like, ‘Oh, you know, I wasn’t making stuff up, this was actually abuse,’” she said.

Not only is S.O.F.I.A. known for holding workshops on such topics as teen dating or having support groups for victims, it also works to help victims transition back into the world.

The Essex County Safe House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and their children, refers its clients to S.O.F.I.A. for help with starting to establish their new lives. For victims moving into a new living situation, S.O.F.I.A. provides essentials, including furniture and toys for the children.

S.O.F.I.A. is available to hold presentations for companies, school organizations and even small get-togethers that friends may arrange. The main goal for the grassroots organization is to raise awareness.

“One of our big pushes is to lessen the stigma; when talking about domestic violence or intimate partner violence we want to make sure that we talk about it as more than just a statistic,” Wald said. “It’s just that everyone knows someone who is in an unhealthy relationship.” 

For those who may know someone who is a victim of domestic abuse, Wald said the most important tactic is to leave lines of communication open with the victim.

“It can be frustrating, it can be heart-wrenching,” she said. “But the most important thing is that you focus on your friend or family member, and not on what you think they quote unquote should do.” Wald said victims need the autonomy to make decisions for themselves.

S.O.F.I.A. is volunteer-run. To donate, volunteer or get help, visit supportsofia.org

This story has been corrected from an earlier version.