BELLEFONTE — It was 20 years ago that Dora McQuaid had to walk up the Centre County courthouse steps alone and terrified, past the man who had abused her and held her hostage with a gun for 17 hours.
She had to walk past him, his family and his new girlfriend in order to find a way to safety from him. She had to go to court to seek protection from someone who she had cared about, someone who had hurt her.
And almost exactly 20 years after that hearing, she gave an emotional speech at the courthouse as part of a series of events for Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the county, in order to support and honor those who have suffered from domestic violence.
McQuaid now is a poet, activist, advocate and teacher who has used her writing to bring awareness and support to the survivors.
Because of her activism against domestic and sexual violence in Centre County, her portrait was chosen to replace Jerry Sandusky on the Heister Street mural in State College.
Along with her presentation, the Domestic Violence Leaves Empty Space event brought to the courthouse the powerful image of a large table set for dinner for 15 guests, but the seats remaining empty. Those empty seats represented the lives that have been lost in Centre County through domestic violence since 1998.
The powerful image, along with an anonymous telling of victims’ stories on the table, show people the danger of domestic violence and how it affects people’s lives. The event was sponsored by Centre Safe, formerly the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, and the table will be making its way around the county throughout the rest of the month.
“Domestic violence does leave an empty place at the table. Every time those families sit down and eat together somebody is missing,” said McQuaid. “Somebody who was killed by someone who once loved them. Every time that family sits, they know their loved one will not ever sit with them at the table again.”
For McQuaid, who shared a difficult story about the traumatic events of her domestic abuse case, it was a reminder of how honored she is to be at the event speaking because she knows she was close to being the 16th empty place at that table.
“One of the things that I am constantly reminding myself of, and it sounds dramatic but it’s true, but I could have died, and I didn’t. By the grace of God I am blessed enough to be standing here and not be represented by a place setting of a life lost, so as I said, it is an honor to be here.”
It was emotional experience for McQuaid speaking so near where a large part of her story started.
“I was called to do this work in this community because I was victimized in this community and I became a survivor in this community,” said McQuaid. “I took my personal story out into the public with every opportunity I had in an effort to have that public conversation keep expanding so that more victims and more survivors can come forward and get the resources and support they need to begin to heal.”
McQuaid said that two decades ago she was able to use resources that were not available to her mother as she went through her own struggle with domestic violence. She said the support of the community and the work that she has done with Centre Safe and Centre County government has provided even more support during the past 20 years, but there is still more to be done.
“The distance that we have crossed in 20 years in the addressing of this violence leaves me dumbfounded daily. How different the resources are, how much more accessible, how much more understanding and how more empathetic and compassionate … the programs, the court system, lawyers, police officers … we have come so far, and we still have a way to go,” said McQuaid.
She said she wants people who are still dealing with domestic violence or trauma from past abuse to know that they are not alone and that people are there to help.
McQuaid applauded the recent name change of the Women’s Resource Center to Centre Safe, because men, women and children can all be victims of domestic abuse and may need the support of a resource such as Centre Safe.
Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said he was moved by McQuaid’s speech and the hope it can provide for people who need to come forward. He also said it was a call to action for those in the county who are working to help survivors, as McQuaid’s story is an example that their work can have a positive impact.
“You see your story is a gift for the people who are working in the area of domestic abuse because we don’t always get to see the end of the story. We don’t get to see the 20-year arc of someone’s life. … So, you empower the people in this room to go back to work, and work harder,” said Cantorna.
“I want anyone who is listening to this, know that when you come forward and tell your story, you will be heard, you will believed, and there is a room full of supporters who are ready to act and help you take the steps, one step at a time to change your life.”
Cantorna said that everyone knows someone who is in an abusive relationship, and that 25 percent of households deal with some sort of domestic abuse, but as a community, we can make a difference.
“What can we do? One of the things we can do is to stay connected to that person who is being abused, to be there so that, when that person is ready to talk, you are there to listen.”
He said the county has the supports needed to help those who are dealing with domestic violence.
“There is literally an entire roomful of people waiting to hear your story. What we want you to do is find a safe place, tell and then seek professional help.”
McQuaid remembers the support of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center while she was going through legal battles surrounding her domestic abuse case. She turned to writing poetry about her experience in order to help her get through the emotional roller coaster, and eventually one of the poems was printed in a CCWRC newsletter. Later, she published a book of poems, “The Scorched Earth,” a collection about her experience, and began sharing her story.
“No matter what happens to us, there is always hope, and there is always the opportunity to move forward. As long as we are still alive and we are still showing up, there is always the chance to move forward and become the people we know we are capable of being, no matter what has been done to us in the past,” said McQuaid.
Those who are struggling with domestic abuse can call the Centre Safe hotline at (814) 234-5050 or (877) 234-5050.