Vigil honors domestic violence victims

Strength, hope and remembrance.

Those were the themes of the Domestic/Sexual Assault Outreach Center’s annual victims and survivors vigil Thursday at St. Paul Lutheran Church.

They were also the focus of the vigil’s two keynote speakers.

Savannah Ruhnke, of Fort Dodge, recalled her mother, Michelle Rae Barlow-Kelley, by speaking about her murder.

Barlow-Kelley was killed in Plymouth on Oct. 16, 1988, while trying to leave her husband. He killed himself before police could arrest him.

Ruhnke said she gained strength from her experience.

“I’ve grown from it,” she said.

“Knowing what my mother went through, I know I would never allow my husband to hurt me,” she said. “Though he would never do that anyway.”

She’s told her children about their late grandmother and used her memory to educate them on domestic violence.

“I want my sons to know that it’s not OK to lay their hands on a woman,” Ruhnke said.

She thinks about her mother constantly, she told the audience.

“I don’t have the opportunity to call her on the phone,” she said. “She’s not here for me to physically contact and hug and be the support I need.”

But she wants her mother’s tragedy to be part of a greater, positive message.

“I hope that my story helps another child or victim of domestic violence,” she said.

Rhonda Dean, victim rights coordinator with the Crime Victims Assistance Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, also addressed the more than 60 people who attended.

She said events such as the vigil inspire people.

“They are energizing and moving because action can come out of them,” she said. “They can spark action throughout the entire year.”

One way in which action has led to change is by understanding what domestic violence victims need and its importance. One example is stable housing once the victim leaves their abuser, she said.

“Families who are in their own home are 80 percent more likely to stay violence-free,” Dean said.

“We’re still focusing on victim safety,” she added. “Still working towards action.”

Dean also issued a challenge to men to be aware of their actions.

“How you treat your wife, your daughter, your niece sets an example far beyond the reach of your voice,” she said. “This is not just a women’s issue; it’s a human issue.”