Sgt. Carolyn Stapleton said the idea came to her one night in a dream: a clear vision of exactly what she needed to do.
Stapleton said that in her dream she saw the families of homicide victims lined up before a lectern, taking turns telling an audience about a special memory of their lost loved one.
“I just knew it had to be done,” said Stapleton, victims’ service coordinator at the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office. “I went to work the next day and said, ‘We have to do this.’ I didn’t have any idea how, but I was just sure of it.”
What came of that dream, and Stapleton’s determination to see it to fruition, is the Evening of Remembrance — an annual ceremony that honors the memory of people slain in Baton Rouge.
The ceremony features pictures of the victims displayed on a screen while relatives speak of their cherished memories and what was taken from them.
At least 20 homicide victims are remembered by family members at the ceremony each year, allowing relatives a chance to memorialize those who died and connect with other grieving families.
That opportunity for the surviving family members to speak publicly about their loved one was missing and desperately needed in Baton Rouge, Stapleton said.
As the victims’ service coordinator, Stapleton assists crime victims as they navigate the criminal justice system, and she helps secure reparations for lost wages, funeral costs, mental health services and other burdens stemming from violent acts.
After seeing dozens of families of homicide victims in her office, Stapleton knew enough wasn’t being done.
“I would hand them a check and see this lost look on their face, like ‘Now what?’,” she said.
Stapleton said she began praying nightly about what else she could do for the families, and that’s when the dream came to her.
Organizing the event the first year in 2006 was a struggle, she said, because she didn’t have any funding or a place to hold the memorial. But “good people always step up to the plate,” Stapleton said, and that first year the event was standing room only in the Governmental Building downtown.
“That attendance shows it was a need that needed to be met,” Stapleton said. “That’s how much it means to people.”
With the continued support of Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, the Evening of Remembrance has grown each year, Stapleton said, attracting upward of 500 people in attendance. Many of them are surviving families who have spoken at previous events or those not yet ready to speak publicly.
But they’ll always get an invitation.
“Sometimes it’s just too soon, so it can take years before they’re able to talk,” Stapleton said “But then they’re so glad they did it. And they get to talk to one another. They’re feeling so alone, like they’re the only one in this world going through this. But then everyone else at the ceremony can truly say, ‘I understand how you feel,’ and they know it’s real.”
Helping families remember their loved ones is one of the event’s goals; helping the public remember someone who was violently taken is another goal.
“We only hear this person’s name once or twice when they appear in the paper, but here you hear how wonderful they were and what someone took from this world,” Stapleton said. “This person was special.”
This year’s event is scheduled at 6:30 p.m., Sept. 20, at The Chapel on the Campus, 3355 Dalrymple Drive.
Katie Kennedy covers law enforcement in East Baton Rouge Parish for The Advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.