By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
When Sharon Applewhite lost touch with her daughter in May 2005, she
knew something was wrong.
For six years, the two lived near each other and had become close. It didn’t make sense to Applewhite that her daughter would not answer her phone or pick up her kids from daycare. After two days, the police found her daughter’s body, and as the investigation went on, it turned up dismally few details.
Eventually, the case went cold. The rest of the world moved on.
“About two weeks after the funeral, people stopped coming around,” Applewhite said. “My church was stunned, and my pastor was very supportive, but even the best of people don’t know what to say in the face of something like this.”
Like many who go through a trauma like hers, Applewhite turned to her faith for answers. She admitted being angry, believing God could have intervened. She remembered the biblical Job, a righteous man who suffered at the hands of Satan.
“I came to understand that God was not the author of this, only permits it. He doesn’t control us like robots,” she said.
Three years later, Applewhite came to Survival Inc., an advocacy group in Saltillo aimed at protecting the rights of those affected by violent
crime. She found solace in Survival Inc.’s support groups.
“At first I thought I could cope with it on my own, but I don’t think anyone could do that,” she said. “Nobody understands what I went through unless they’ve walked that walk. We became a unique family,”
Jo Lindsey, who works with Survival Inc. said before her involvement, she thought a homicide was over after the funeral.
“I was naive. Other people go back to their lives, but you’re left with a hole to dig out of,” she said. “So often, the process is all about the
criminal. But victims deserve to have a voice, too.”
Survival Inc. was started by Carolyn Clayton and Sybil Stacy, of
Ruleville. After Clayton’s daughter was murdered in 1986, Clayton joined
the Mississippi Advocates for Crime Victims organization, and proved instrumental in the passing of a 10-bill package into law which defined victims’ rights. Over the course of this process, Clayton and Stacy got to know other survivors and formed Survival Inc. as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization.
In addition to support groups, Survival Inc. also provides professionals to walk victims through the sluggish legal process.
“Victims need someone to stand for them because they can’t always stand for themselves,” said Mary Katherine Spencer, in her seventh month as chief advocate with Survival Inc.
“Sometimes law enforcement doesn’t keep a family as up to date on their case as they are legally entitled to. Sometimes the defense attorney subpoenas the family as witnesses to keep them out of court.
Sometimes they need someone to just sit with them during a hearing.”
Survival Inc. also helps victims receive financial aid through a victims’
compensation program that includes funeral expenses and time taken off work to attend court.
A self-described strategist, Spencer came to Survival Inc. with big plans for the organization. Upon her arrival in June, she applied for a government grant to help fund Survival Inc., and her goal for 2013 is to reach out to Northeast Mississippi’s faithbased community.
“The church community is a huge part of people’s lives here. People respect the church and listen to what it has to say,” she said. “For instance, the Methodist church took the reins of the bell ringing
memorial in honor of the Newtown, Conn., victims
that took place last month.”
Spencer said she has found the citizens of Northeast Mississippi to be intelligent and compassionate, but the legal aspect of homicide recovery may be something they never thought of.
Spencer said she will seek to raise awareness with local pastors and congregations so they may know how to better comfort their church family members should a tragedy occur.
“I’m not at all hesitant to mix religious and secular organizations because everyone needs to know victims’ rights is an issue,”
she said. “The root of fellowship is compassion and love, which fits the
church perfectly. If every church knew a little bit more, they may could help someone fight the anguish of feeling powerless after
losing a loved one in a violent way.”
Currently, Spencer is in the process of distributing materials to local pastors in hopes they might mention Survival Inc. to their congregations in anticipation for the month of
April, which is Crime Victims Survival month.
“Lots of times churches take it upon themselves to financially assist a survivor in paying for funeral costs and other things,” Spencer said. “But they also need to know about things like the victim’s compensation program which helps pay for funeral costs and time off work to attend court. That takes a lot of pressure off of churches and would allow the money they do raise to be even more effective.”
CLOSER THAN EXPECTED
It may be hard for most Northeast Mississippians to imagine being directly affected by a homicides but Spencer said she receives at least two new cases every week.
“No one plans for this to happen to them,” Spencer said. “There is no way to answer the question of why a perpetrator did what they did, but I’m here to offer my services in getting whatever help and resources I can for them.”
In the small Survival Inc. building in Saltillo, the walls are covered with
paper butterflies, each one dedicated to a person lost to homicide. Every month, Spencer and Lindsey display names from those who have been killed in that month through the years.
“Tragedy will hopefully never be the norm. It will never happen to most
people,” she said. “But when it does, it would help for the community to have a plan in place to help.”