A candlelight vigil in recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month and Crime Victims’ Rights Week was held Thursday, April 22, at the Cleveland Senior Citizens Center. Sponsored by the Liberty County District Attorney’s Office with District Attorney Jennifer Bergman Harkness serving as host, the vigil was a reminder that any person from any walk of life can become a crime victim given the right circumstances.
“Anyone is susceptible to being a victim of crime. When you think about who could potentially be a victim, just look around,” Harkness said. “The DA’s office is committed to prosecuting individuals who commit crimes and supporting the victims of those crimes. It can be a lengthy process that could take months or years. With COVID-19, the process has become even longer.”
With trials postponed throughout the pandemic, justice was delayed – not only for the suspects but for their victims, which has made the role of crime victim advocates even more crucial to the process, she said.
With only one member of her staff devoted to serving crime victims, Harkness said she will be looking to expand the programs and staffing in the future to offer crime victims the support and services they need.
The guest speaker at the vigil was LaNora Purvis, founder of Heaven’s Army, a non-profit organization that rescues at-risk women who are victims of human trafficking, sexual and mental abuse, or other traumas, and allows them a safe place to heal while they complete an intense one-year, Christ-based program.
Now based in Liberty County, the group home has operated in the Cleveland area for many years, though it was located in the Montgomery County area of Cleveland. Last week, Heaven’s Army located to its new headquarters off of FM 2518 in Tarkington and now is looking to expand its services to include a men’s ministry and a transitional home for women after they graduate from the one-year course.
Heaven’s Army was founded in February 2010, not long after Purvis experienced a life-changing moment after a third arrest for Driving While Intoxicated.
“In 2009, I found myself sitting in a jail cell on the top bunk. I knew inside that I was a good person. I always wanted to help everyone, but it seemed that everyone was against me. I was sitting there with this ‘woe is me’ attitude. I have a faith-based ministry so you will hear me talk a lot about God. I was sitting there and saying, ‘God, why me? Why did this happen to me?’ No one wanted me and there was abuse. I remember saying, ‘God, if you are real, help me out of this.'”
Her salvation came after a caring probation officer reportedly told Purvis that she was not living the life God had intended for her and she needed to change course. In that moment, everything changed for Purvis.
Two months later, she started Heaven’s Army as a way to help others battling their own addictions and traumas. She started by teaching and leading Bible studies.
“I was a victim. I no longer carry that title. I am an overcomer. Now I use everything that the enemy sent to destroy me with to combat and help those who are out there in those places of trauma,” she said.
While many people try to gloss over their environment and not see the seedier side of life, Purvis believes everyone must recognize that problems exist in order for them to be changed.
“I remember thinking that human trafficking was not in our community. A lot of times we think human trafficking is international, but it can be your mom, sister or children who are right here,” she said. “We have to be informed at what’s out there and not turn a blind eye to it and not see what is really going on out there. It’s not just out there in the world; it’s here.”
After a brief candle-lighting ceremony that followed Purvis’ speech, County Attorney Matt Poston offered closing remarks.
“A number of things came to mind while I was listening to LaNora. It’s always a bit of a mystery to me. How can these things, especially with children but adults as well, happen and no one notice? What is it that creates change in a person’s life after so much trauma?” he said. “I think they teach in Alcoholics Anonymous that drugs and alcohol are not the problem. They are the solution to a problem, and they work until they don’t. They work until the drugs and drinking become the problem.”
Poston said that the absence of a community appears to be part of the issue.
“In the absence of a community, these terrible things happen, but in its presence, people are healed,” he said. “I am pleased to be part of a team and a community that tries desperately day to day to change things. I want to say thank you and keep heart. Stay encouraged. We have seen the wheels of justice grind slowly over the last year because of the pandemic. I am eager to now see it move forward and see lives changed.”