Crime Victims’ Center lauded at 40th anniversary

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County officials, residents praise agency for decades of advocacy

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

State Sen. Andy Dinniman reads from a certificate honoring the Crime Victims' Center that he presented to Peggy Gusz, its  executive director.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman reads from a certificate honoring the Crime Victims’ Center that he presented to Peggy Gusz, its executive director.

The vast majority of residents go about their business with no need for the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, Inc. (CVC), and that’s not a problem, its members insist. But for those who do require its services, the agency delivers invaluable assistance – a sentiment that reverberated through its 40th anniversary celebration on Friday night.

Among the approximately 200 who gathered at the Downingtown County Club to celebrate the group’s accomplishments were government and law-enforcement officials, lawyers, volunteers, and a handful of victims.

In presenting a certificate of appreciation to Peggy Gusz, the CVC’s longtime director, County Commissioner Terence Farrell described the agency’s role as bittersweet, remarking that although it is regrettable that people are victimized, it’s fortunate that services exist to help them.

Commissioner Kathi Cozzone echoed his remarks but also added thanks on a personal level. She read a poignant letter from her sister-in-law, Janet Cozzone, who lost her daughter, Jesika Kavanagh, 19, of Downingtown, on Feb. 19, 2011, in a car crash caused by a speeding 17-year-old driver.

Describing her relationship with the center’s victim advocates, Janet Cozzone said: “Were it not for everyone at the Crime Victims’ Center who helped me through the most traumatic thing that could happen to a mother, I wouldn’t be where I am today, able to speak about my daughter Jesika without an emotional meltdown … I will forever be grateful that you came into my life, and I can never repay you for the new life that you have given me.”

Kathi Cozzone said she saw firsthand the lifeline that the center represented to her family. “I know exactly what you have done for thousands of others in the county,” she said.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, also the bearer of a certificate, this one from the Senate, said he had witnessed ‘the amazing work” done by the CVC for a long time, pointing out that its success has inspired organizations as far way as Japan. “This Crime Victims’ Center is an absolute model,” Dinniman said, ensuring that “any victim of crime is treated with respect and dignity.”

Many of the veteran law-enforcers in attendance remembered the early days of the agency, which experienced resistance from police officers who had no time for meddling do-gooders. Chester County Det./Sgt. Michael McGinnis said that many of his colleagues realized that “law enforcement in Chester County was not addressing the needs of victims.” He said they became more accepting when they saw that the CVC “provides the methodology in which successful prosecution of offenders is accomplished while the overall needs of the victim remain paramount.”

McGinnis, who served 19 years on the CVC board, five of them as its president, noted that victims require services long after the prosecution ends. “The Crime Victims Center provides those services,” he said.

Many supporters credited the agency’s longevity to the tenacity of Gusz and other members of the staff. “We never thought we’d make it this far,” Gusz said, adding that every anniversary has represented a milestone.

Gusz said she believed any credit for the agency’s success should go to the people and businesses that have supported it over the years. From police and prosecutors to donors and victims, Gusz described an endless list of people who deserved thanks, especially the volunteers.

Bill Shelton said he discovered the agency  20 years ago when he was working for DuPont in Wilmington. During the company’s United Way campaign, Shelton perused the list of beneficiaries and selected the CVC since he lives in Kennett Square and wanted a local nonprofit to benefit from his contributions. A series of annual thank-you notes from Gusz enabled him to learn more about the organization, and he decided he would volunteer when he retired five years ago.

“I hope I can continue to do this for many, many years,” he said, explaining that the opportunity to assist someone in crisis “is gratifying beyond almost anything else you can imagine.”

Carrie Wimer said she experienced the CVC’s work  during the lengthy prosecution of Morgan M. Mengel, who was convicted in February 2013 of fatally bludgeoning her husband, Kevin Mengel Jr., in June 2010. Wimer, who was the girlfriend of the victim’s father, Kevin Mengel Sr. at the time, said such tragedies have repercussions that extend far beyond the immediate family.

Kevin Mengel Sr. said he was not surprised when Wimer, now his fiancée, started volunteering for the CVC. He said his extended family struggles constantly to create positives from the tragedy, and assisting others helps fill the void. He said one uplifting moment for him occurred this past spring after NBC’s Dateline televised a story about the murder, a show in which Mengel Sr. explained how his joy over patching a rift with his son was cut short by the homicide.

A couple of days later, a man that Mengel Sr. recognized from his gym approached him. The man had watched the show and was moved to pick up the phone and call his estranged son. “That was huge,” Mengel Sr. said. “I felt so good that someone was able to benefit from my situation.”

For victim advocates, that’s the kind of attitude that fuels the agency, which was founded in the early ’70s as the Rape Crisis Council. The group quickly realized that victims’ needs were not gender-specific, expanding into the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, Inc. Operating with a commitment to growth that’s driven by victims’ needs, its myriad services include two 24-hour crisis hotlines, one for sexual assaults and one for other crimes; accompaniment for victims at police interviews and court proceedings; individual and group counseling; sensitivity training; and outreach programs on topics such as date rape and bullying.

 

 

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