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Local heroes 2013

People helping people
By PHILIP EIL  |  April 25, 2013

In this 16th annual edition of the Providence Phoenix's Best issue, we highlight people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work — local heroes who often labor behind the scenes to change their communities for the better. Whatever neighborhoods we live in, we are all in their debt.

 Heroes_Tara_top.jpg
DEDICATED Moniz in the victims support room. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

TARA MONIZ:A LIFELINE AFTER DEATH

"As a joke which nobody thinks is funny, I say I have the job that's a conversation killer," Tara Moniz says. "Nobody wants to talk about homicide."

In a state where victims of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other social disasters can find specially trained counselors, Moniz — Director of Victims Services at Providence's Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence — is the only advocate devoted specifically to murder, she says.

When Rhode Islanders read about a murder-suicide in Warwick; when they hear about a strangling or a stabbing in Woonsocket or Pawtucket or Providence, Moniz is likely reporting for duty at the hospital or the family's home. Murders don't just happen to the victim, she says. They happen "to their mother, to their father, to their children, brothers, sisters, and the community."

A murder also leaves logistical questions that, thankfully, few people will ever have to answer. Will the medical examiner pass the body along to a funeral home or does the family need to pick it up? Who will make sudden funeral arrangements? Will anyone clean the bloodstained rug where the crime took place? It's Moniz's job to help answer these questions.

"I'm perfectly comfortable walking into a house where a mother is laying on the floor crying and knowing that I can go to her . . . get on the floor with her and hug her and then sort of be able to say, 'We need to do this now,' " she says.

We'll let other newspapers focus on the fact that Moniz lives in a town called Hope Valley (which, we must admit, is pretty poetic for a woman of her unflappable charm). We at the Phoenix will instead boast that we helped connect Moniz with her current job.

While working as a case manager at South Shore Mental Health Center in Charlestown in 2003, she spotted the Phoenix's "The Peacemakers" feature profiling the fledgling nonviolence institute's peace-promoting work on Providence's grittiest streets. Moniz ripped the article out of the paper, went home to her mother, and said that this was where she wanted to work. A few years later, when funding for her counseling position dried up and she answered a listing for a homicide victims advocate, she got her chance.

Nowadays, four years later, Moniz has a stack of testimonials describing her skills. Her work is "critical to the emotional balance of victims and surviving family members who struggle to cope after a tragic loss," a note from the state attorney general's office reads. "I am [grateful] that God appointed you to help so many," adds a handwritten note from a bereaved family.

What impresses us most, though, is that, like a tango dancer or jazz musician, Moniz is a master of improvisation. Murder and its effects are unpredictable by nature, so Moniz is constantly straying from the services printed in the nonviolence institute's "Victims Support Services" brochure. One day she might chauffeur a bereaved mother to the cemetery for a visit to her child's headstone; another, she may browse the Internet for jewelry designed to carry a loved one's ashes. Once when a family couldn't bear to look at autopsy photos during a murder trial in Providence, Moniz stayed in the courtroom to bear witness on their behalf. None of these "clients," as the nonviolence institute calls them, are charged a cent.

In fact, on every third Wednesday of the month, they — and anyone else struggling with the violent loss of a loved one — are invited to a meeting room at the ISPN's South Providence headquarters for one of Moniz's victims support sessions. Votive candles and a half-empty box of tissues sit on the table ("I could buy stock in Kleenex," Moniz jokes). Framed photographs line the walls with names and birth/death dates underneath them.

She isn't so much a discussion leader as a listener during these sessions, Moniz says. Some attendees have been told by friends to "get over it" or "move on." But, as Moniz says, "Why would you 'get over' someone? . . . You don't want to 'get over' people. They're important to you.

"We're not going to tell you, 'Oh, I've already heard that,' " she continues.

Sitting in that victims support room, she points to a photograph sitting on a nearby bookshelf of a brightly smiling woman. That woman's mother told Moniz again and again about the frozen lasagna they shared for their last meal together.

"She needed to tell me that a hundred times and that's OK," Moniz says. "Every time I look at her now I think. 'OK, she had lasagna with her mom. Her last meal was lasagna with her mom.' "

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ARTICLES BY PHILIP EIL
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