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New symbol of fight against domestic violence grows in Northampton: a cherry tree

JULIETTE SANDLEITNER
Trevor Banas adds dirt to a newly planted cherry tree on the front lawn of the Old Courthouse in Northampton. Behind him on the left is Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. His grandmother, Yoko Kato, is to the right of Banas.

JULIETTE SANDLEITNER Trevor Banas adds dirt to a newly planted cherry tree on the front lawn of the Old Courthouse in Northampton. Behind him on the left is Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. His grandmother, Yoko Kato, is to the right of Banas. Purchase photo reprints »

As buses and pedestrians churned by, they stood on the fenced lawn of the Old Courthouse and looked upon a newly planted cherry tree, its slender truck wrapped in protective tape.

Days before, an old tree had been felled. Students from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School prepared the ground for this new tree, which honors victims of domestic violence.

Yoko Kato of South Hadley, who provided the tree, said she has long wanted to use what the cherry symbolizes in her native Japan to recall victims, particularly her daughter, Sherry Morton, and grandson, Cedric Seabrooks, who were murdered by the boy’s father in 1993.

On Friday, with family members and allies gathered, Kato spoke of how fatal domestic violence changes the lives of survivors without warning. “We have to hold the perpetrators accountable for their behavior,” she said.

Kato called the cherry tree an apt symbol, for it represents, in its short, brilliant season of blossom, the temporary and fragile nature of life. “It is so much like Sherry and Cedric’s short life,” she said.

Those gathered also listened as two representatives of the office of the Northwestern district attorney, Mary Kociela and Susan Loehn, read aloud the names of women killed in domestic violence in Hampshire County in the past 20 years.

Marianne Winters, executive director of Safe Passage, a Northampton program for battered women, said acts of connection and community-building, like the project to install the cherry tree, guide continued work to confront domestic violence.

“Some loss is too deep to handle alone,” Winters said. “Our mission now is to hold on to that vision.”

One of those who attended the dedication, Phil Barry of Russell, said he lost his sister-in-law to domestic violence in May 2002. “The violent aspect of these crimes is traumatic,” he said. “Not only for the immediate family, but for everyone in their circle.”

Monica Moran of Amherst, coordinator for the Southern Hampshire and Ware Domestic Violence Task Force, said it’s hard to tell if domestic violence rates are improving. As awareness of domestic violence increases, so do reports and requests for help, she noted.

Moran would like to see domestic violence awareness and response training taught in schools. “Teens and high schoolers should know the signs of abusive relationships as well as they know mathmatics,” she said. “It should be on the MCAS.”,

Carol Brundige, a member of the Ware Domestic Violence Task Force, said police in many communities have improved how they respond to domestic violence calls and now routinely follow up to see that victims remain safe.

The tree dedication coincided with a conference at Smith College Friday that explored how those at risk of domestic violence can be trapped by economic circumstances. Anti-poverty agencies need to work alongside those seeking to protect women from violent partners, participants said.

Tree as symbol

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said the tree now occupies a prominent place at the “cornerstone of the justice center” in Hampshire County.

He called on those who attended to extend helping hands to abuse victims. “Help them move forward and have the better life we know lies ahead of them.”

He thanked Kato for leading the project and for “really keeping the flame alive” in her work internationally against domestic violence.

“We’re really planting the seed of hope for those out there suffering in domestic violence situations,” Sullivan said.

In a blessing, the Rev. Peter Ives recalled Kato’s struggle with loss and urged people not to feel defeated by the problem. “We all have the power to do something, no matter how powerless we feel,” he said. “Violence cannot end violence. Only love can do that.”

Ives spoke of how even a little cherry tree deserves to have a large impact. “May its blossoms be a blessing for all who pass by,” Ives said.

Gazette reporter Bob Dunn contributed to this story.

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