Graduations are supposed to be joyous occasions. This one was bittersweet. There were the usual trappings: a prominent guest, a beautifully decorated cake, honors and applause for the graduates.
But there also was a sadness I couldn't shake, a melancholy feeling that swept over me when I realized the 11 women newly trained in handling spouse abuse would be put to work immediately.
The volunteers will help the Citrus County Abuse Shelter Association (CASA) guide battered women and their children through the ocean of government red tape to get such essential items as restraining orders and food stamps. Some will answer CASA's hot line. All will provide shoulders to cry on.
A half-hour or so after Thursday night's ceremony, many of the volunteers already had headed back to CASA's shelter.
Most of the new trainees have been abused themselves, said CASA victim advocate Kathleen McCoy Bennett.
"When women in the shelter talk about their troubles, these women can say, "I know. I was there,'
" she said, gesturing to the volunteers. "They understand the fear."
Why would someone who is trying to put that part of her life behind her want to work in an environment that constantly reminds her of the horrors she's just escaped?
"It's part of healing," Bennett said. Noting that she, too, was a victim, she said, "I'm a good role model for them.
"I was told (by her ex-husband) that I was a lousy wife and a bad mother. That I was ugly and couldn't keep a house. I was isolated from everyone. I was living with a maniac," she said.
Now, years later, Bennett has regained her self-esteem. "I like the person I am," she said.
Listening to some of stories these women tell of abuse at the hands of men who professed to love them, I felt disgusted with others of my gender.
What kind of man, I wondered, tries to drown his wife in a bucket of hot water and Spic 'n Span? What sort of monster kicks his pregnant wife in the abdomen? Or, through sheer intimidation, keeps a woman a prisoner in her own home?
To recognize that such people not only exist but also that their numbers are growing steadily is to understand why such organizations are so vital.
Besides welcoming new needed helpers, CASA also paused Thursday night to toast some of its own.
This special agency attracts special people, such as Harold Richards, who donated more than 500 hours and about the same amount of miles driving clients all over the county for appointments.
Or Ethel Tereck, who has worked more than 800 hours since last spring. A clerical marvel, she runs the copying machine the way Vladimir Horowitz handled the piano.
Or Alice McCoy, Bennett's mother and a CASA worker since 1985. There's not much she hasn't done for the organization in the 3,000 hours she's donated.
Nearly 30 volunteers, including the latest batch, now help at CASA. They learn to handle virtually any situation, from a child custody dispute to rape.
With only 27 such shelters in Florida's 67 counties, women from surrounding counties are sent to CASA. "We handled more than 350 women in the shelter last year," Bennett said. "That doesn't count the hundreds more who called the hot line or who came by here." CASA's office is in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Inverness.
It was heartening to see the new volunteers, but I hope they don't misunderstand when I say that I pray this is CASA's last graduating class.
What a great feeling it would be to drive past CASA's office and see a sign: Closed for lack of clients.
You can reach CASA at 344-8111, or by writing to P.O. Box 205, Inverness, Fla., 32651.