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Isle View Park Tribute Garden is living remembrance of domestic violence

As October approaches, stories about domestic violence will be plentiful in the news. National Domestic Violence Awareness Month is a time to talk about, and take action against, the crime that affects 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States. But along the Niagara River in the Town of Tonawanda is a living remembrance available every day.

"Domestic violence is not a women's problem or a women's issue, it's a community issue and we need to start treating it that way," said Karen King, Erie County commissioner for public advocacy and executive director of the county's Commission on the Status of Women, in an interview with WBFO.

Abuse by an intimate partner is often not reported so the numbers vary, but on a typical day 20,000 calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. Advocates say domestic violence was an epidemic even before COVID-19, but the public health crisis has caused cases to spike around the country.

"The DV advocates that we work closely with - Crisis Services, the Family Justice Center, Haven House, International Institute - all reported a spike in calls to hotlines asking about services and shelters," King said, "and there's been some spike in the report of incidents."

Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
Amphitheater seating made of stone faces the Niagara River.

"You can imagine being in a situation, trying to figure out if you should leave an abusive situation and what resources you have available to you. And then you add the additional layer of a concern for your own health and safety, not just because of the abuser, but because of a public health pandemic crisis going on," King said. "So people were feeling trapped and sequestered and wondering is it even safe for me to leave to go into a shelter or I'm afraid or will the police show up. That is a lot for someone to deal with."

King will be among the advocates and survivors at Isle View Park Saturday at 10 a.m., marking the fifth anniversary of the Tribute Garden. Dedicated in September 2015, the Tribute Garden is a gesture of love and respect to those affected by domestic violence and is believed to be the first permanent garden of its kind on public land in the country.

"It's a very popular spot because it's part of a larger bike and walking trail, and we also have had a few of our community partners host events there, as well," she said. "Whether it's just to walk there or sit and reflect, we want it to be a community space devoted to creating education and awareness and healing."

Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
With the Niagara River as a backdrop, Sarah Fonzi's 12' tall iron sculpture faces the amphitheater seating.

Well-known landscape artist Joy Kuebler worked with King and an advisory group to envision the crescent moon-shaped garden, with stone amphitheater seating and flower beds that bloom in warm months, separated by a few walkways.

Mixed media artist Sarah Fonzi created the 12' sculpture made of fabricated steel tubing that anchors the garden. She calls it "Valere Passage."

"I was trying to kind of get down to the root of what this could mean to different people, and wanted it to be this warm embrace that would be uplifting and still someone with strength and power," Fonzi said. "So I was just digging around and, you know, found the root word for strength, valere. "
Women make up only 1.5% of ironworkers nationally. Most recently, Fonzi has been teaching welding to Burgard High School students at the Northland Workforce Training Center in Buffalo.

The Niagara River serves as the backdrop for her sculpture, which allows the sunlight to shine through its decorative design.

"From farther away, it almost looks like a silhouette of the figure. As you get closer and you can pass through it, there are different pattern textile-looking components that are all made of woven steel or cut steel and welded steel, and it's all kind of patchworked together into this archway," Fonzi said. "At the very top of the sculpture is a circle and at the summer solstice, the sun sets directly through the sculpture and really illuminates the entire thing."

Each year, an event is held at the Tribute Garden on the summer solstice, to watch the sunset through that top circle.

Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
Blocks in the stone walls have the names of those lost to domestic violence carved into them.

King said the garden also provides teachable moments. Students help maintain the flower beds and the stones engraved with the names of victims and sponsors, while learning about healthy relationships.

"We have to start thinking differently about the way we understand relationship dynamics and identity development, you know, masculine identity development, feminine identity development. There's been a lot of talk recently about toxic masculinity," she said. "We live in a culture that, to some degree, embraces violence and that's part of this larger discussion."

"It's just so important that we bring this into the public sphere and talk about it and let people know and empower them to get the help and to be a good neighbor," Fonzi said, "and, you know, keep an eye out and support everyone around you. Just very important to do your part."

The Tribute Garden is located on River Road, at the first Isle View Park entrance off the southbound I-190. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-HELP (7233). You can also chat online there. If you are in immediate danger, law enforcement advise to call 911.

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