Hundreds Gather at Candlelight Vigil for Naiya Villegas
The quiet song of a child’s toy faintly broke the solemn silence of hundreds of San Angeloans gathered on the courthouse lawn Friday evening, when the Tom Green County Coalition of Violence held a candlelight vigil for 5-year-old Naiya Villegas.
Several family members sat on benches before the courthouse steps, many of whom wore purple shirts with a picture of the child emblazoned on the front. Lowering their heads and clinging to one another as tears streamed down their faces, those present silently sobbed as various speakers addressed the crowd.
President of the Tom Green County Coalition of Violence Crystal Ward spoke first, welcoming the audience and relaying the stark reality of violence in our community.
“We have work to do,” she said. “In our last Coalition Against Violence Training, we had a speaker from Adult Protective Services tell us that everywhere else in the state, domestic violence, interpersonal violence, rapes, are decreasing. And Tom Green County has continued to increase since the year 2000.”
Ward’s voice wavered with emotion as she continued to say that domestic and interpersonal violence are both predictable and preventable, then concluded with a call to action.
“This isn’t just a women’s issue, this isn’t just a feminist issue….this is an everybody issue,” she said firmly. “We need men, we need women, to be good role models for our children and we need to stop believing that aggression is a good way to solve our problems and to get what we want. We need to stop believing that other people are property. We need to do better and we can, because you’re here.”
Calling upon a woman Ward said she can always rely on in difficult times, Karen Schmeltekopf of Hospice approached the microphone next, providing soothing words for the heartbroken family in attendance.
“There’s an old saying: it’s darkest before the dawn. And it feels pretty dark right now. But here’s the good news: neither violence nor death has the last word…” Schmeltekopf said slowly. “…A laws of physics is that matter and energy can never be lost. So whenever a life ceases to exist, it stops existing only in that form. That means that Naiya’s energy is still with us, only in a different form.”
After repeating a prayer meant to usher in change both in oneself and in the world, Schmeltekopf invited the hundreds of attendees to light their candles. As they did so, clusters of friends and family sauntered up to a growing memorial, laying small gifts and candles down at the base of the steps.
Clutching a stuffed teddy bear in her hand and a long, cylindrical candle, a woman approached the memorial, her hand shaking uncontrollably, as she dropped to her knees to set down the gift, a young man helped her, steadying her hand.
The scene repeated itself in many groups of two to three as more speakers addressed the crowd, among them Naiya’s pastor, Richard Patrick, and one of the girl’s cousins.
Patrick recalled the last time he saw Naiya, on the Sunday before her death and reminded her family of where she is now. He said he’d seen the 5-year-old approaching the church with her grandmother, but decided to stand before the door and deny entry unless Naiya could guess the password, which he then whispered was ‘Jesus’.
“Little did I know that 24 hours later she would be stepping into eternity, standing before the throne of God…being asked that same question,” he said. “‘What’s the password to get in, Naiya?’”
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