Every April, hundreds of people gather at the Jefferson County Government Center and walk to the little garden on the south side of the complex. Along the walkway, among the flowers and trees, are the names of those the community has lost to crime.
Many of their family members and friends make the Courage Walk annually as a reminder that they are not alone and that their loved ones are not forgotten.
On April 29, hundreds of those impacted by crime — survivors, victims’ family members and friends, and their communities — gathered for the 30th annual Courage Walk.
Local victim advocacy organizations host Jefferson County’s event, which always coincides with National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
Vista Exline, the retired executive director of Victim Outreach Incorporated, helped start the event, recalling how it was initially at Crown Hill Park. But, there was no way to acknowledge that the event had happened — no sign or marker to signify who’d been there or why.
Exline hoped to start a garden to honor those impacted by crime, and she soon found out that the county had similar plans. So, in time, the Courage Garden became the epicenter for the annual Courage Walk, she said, emphasizing how it’s grown into an important memorial.
The Courage Walk itself has taken on similar significance, Exline described, saying that it helps remind participants of “the resilience of the human spirit,” and that there are other people who share their experiences.
After 30 years, Exline said she’s learned many of the names in the garden and their stories and wanted to ensure their loved ones, “We haven’t forgotten them.”
At least 200 participants walked this year, which organizers said was the biggest crowd in several years. Some walked to honor specific people, like Arvada Police Officer Dillon Vakoff's family, who wore shirts in his honor. Many others, though, were local volunteers and government employees who were there for general support.
Among the latter were Golden’s Debbie Zwit and her husband, who volunteer in the Courage Garden itself. They started three years ago, helping with planting and upkeep throughout the year. Through their volunteering, they heard about the Courage Walk and decided to participate for the first time.
“I found it to be a beautiful place even before I volunteered,” Zwit said of the Courage Garden, encouraging anyone who’s interested to volunteer. "… It gives me peace and comfort to be able to help.”
Mark Hartmeister, also of the Golden area, attended his first Courage Walk last year to support his friends, whose daughter was murdered. He went with his friends again this year, saying the event raises awareness for people like him who may not know what the Courage Garden is or who it honors.
“Anything that brings awareness is a good thing,” he said. “I hope they keep it going.”
So long as Jeffco hosts a Courage Walk, Gail Barron and her family will be there.
Barron and her two children were wearing shirts honoring their cousin Angel Delgado, who was murdered in 2005. Her family members visit the Courage Garden any time they’re at the courthouse, Barron explained, and they've attended every Courage Walk since losing her.
In that time, they’ve gotten to know the other families who frequent the event and share their experiences with each other. It’s also become an opportunity for the next generation of Delgado’s family — like Barron’s children who are 7 and 1 — to learn about her.
“It’s a way to keep her memory alive ... (and) talk about her freely,” Barron said, referring to her children. “ … Our family is grateful that this (Courage Walk) continues on.”