Two days before his trip to the White House, Vince Mazzara was searching for purple fabric to tuck into his suit pocket. His purple tie alone didn't seem enough.
The addition of a handkerchief speaks louder, he said. Purple ribbons are used to symbolize the dedication of putting a stop to domestic violence, and honoring its victims. And for Mazzara, when it comes to matters of domestic violence, he wants his message to be loud and clear: Nobody should be a victim of a loved one, but if they are, there's help.
That is why today he is being honored at the White House as part of the Champions of Change program, a weekly recognition of individuals from around the country who do extraordinary things behind the scenes, but often don't get the credit they deserve.
"I wish I could wear my heart on my sleeves to say, 'I'm a cop and I want victims to call (for help),'" he said earlier this week, while preparing for his trip to Washington D.C.
Instead, he wears purple.
"It's all about the victims, not about what he wears," said a chuckling Penny Morrill, CEO, of Dade City-based Sunrise Domestic and Sexual Violence Center. "That's so Vince."
Mazzara, 61, of Land O'Lakes, is a former law enforcement officer from Detroit and Palm Beach County who came out of retirement to serve a two-year stint at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. He has dedicated much of his career to domestic violence issues.
His first dealings with domestic violence are personal.
"I had a tough, old Sicilian father," he said, adding that it wasn't often, but it was enough that things got rough in his childhood home in Detroit. "He was pretty tough and there were times he would start battles at my home."
It wasn't so much the violence, which came in the form of spankings with a leather belt; it was the rage that scared him – and the look on the face of his mother, whom he described as a gentle, loving woman. He doesn't remember his father hurting her physically, but the terror in her eyes he will never forget.
Then as a cop, he met victim after victim – young and old – and he couldn't turn away.
He was moved by "seeing how traumatized they were and trying to help them in any way I could."
As a police officer in Cape Coral, he started to write policy to assist other officers in handling such sensitive cases. In 1997, he was appointed by then-Palm Beach County Sheriff Bob Neumann, a former FBI agent Mazzara worked with on high-profile cases back in Detroit, to start a new domestic violence program, which won a Department of Justice grant. He has also been involved with several domestic violence task forces and served on national and state domestic violence fatality review teams.
Once he moved to Pasco County to retire, he became a board member of Sunrise, where he made a bigger impact than he realized. Morrill said she was starting to get lost in the business of the organization. Mazzara's dedication reminded her that the focus of the center is the victims.
"I used to think I was passionate," said Morrill, "but I can't hold a candle to Vince."
Morrill said she recently got a call from Lynn Rosenthal, White House Domestic Violence advisor and a former executive director of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, asking what she thought about nominating Mazzara for the White House award.
Morrill thought it was perfect.
"I was extremely excited, particularly of him getting a national award," she said of learning a week ago that he had been selected. "He's so deserving."
But don't say that to Mazzara, who now works at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence as a STOP (Service Training Officers and Prosecutors) rrant monitor.
"I'm very humbled by it," he said. "There are thousands and thousands of advocates out there who work day in and day out that touch the victims, and their work goes unrecognized."
This award isn't for him, he said. He is merely representing the police officers, prosecutors, hotline operators, victims' advocates and others who dedicate their lives to helping domestic violence victims.
"He's a great addition to (the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence). It's really very exciting to have him honored in this way," said Leisa Wiseman, Mazzara's supervisor and coalition spokeswoman. "It just brings great awareness to domestic violence."