V. Glenn Fueston Jr. (right) tries on a white high heel shoe belonging to Shamere McKenzie (left), who has on Fueston's black dress shoe, as part of a lighthearted exercise during the fourth annual Crime Victims' Rights Conference at the University of Maryland's Adele H. Stamp Student Union in College Park on April 11. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
V. Glenn Fueston Jr. (right) tries on a white high heel shoe belonging to Shamere McKenzie (left), who has on Fueston's black dress shoe, as part of a lighthearted exercise during the fourth annual Crime Victims' Rights Conference at the University of Maryland's Adele H. Stamp Student Union in College Park on April 11. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Alice Oaks experienced the death of two sons killed by gun violence in Baltimore City.

Through constant counseling, prayer and even a little humor, the Baltimore County resident serves as president of a victims support group called Survivors of Violence Everywhere, or S.A.V.E.

“I was so consumed with grief I forgot about my grandchildren,” said Oaks, who has eight grandchildren from her two sons, who died in 2008 and 2014 at ages 31 and 30, respectively. “I wanted to be in a cocoon, but had to get out of that to help myself and others.”

Because Oaks’ organizations helped at least 35 people cope with similar tragedies, she received an award Thursday, April 11 during the fourth annual Crime Victims’ Rights Conference at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Alice Oaks of Baltimore County holds a citation she received at the fourth annual Crime Victims’ Rights Conference at the University of Maryland’s Adele H. Stamp Student Union in College Park on April 11. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

This year’s conference focused on the theme “Honoring Out Past, Creating Hope for the Future.” It featured panels on federal and state policies, domestic violence and how to help victims.

More than 400 people who registered from agencies, business and organizations in the entire state received information at the event hosted by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and the state Board of Victim Services. It also collaborated with Crime Victims’ Right Week with conferences held nationwide.

During the conference, Shamere McKenzie presented a spirited message for advocates to constantly fight for survivors of human trafficking, she asked attendees to take off their shoes and trade them to the person next to them.

V. Glenn Fueston Jr. took off his black dress shoe and tried on one of McKenzie’s white high heels, but her shoe didn’t fit.

The light moment came with a serious message: don’t judge individuals until you walk a mile in their shoes.

“Although we are different, we are alike,” said McKenzie, the event’s keynote speaker and a human trafficking survivor now CEO of Sun Gate Foundation, a nonprofit organization of Alexandria, Virginia, that assist and educate survivors after tragedies. “Don’t forget that the commonality that amongst everyone in this room is the survivor.”

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, slightly more than 5,100 cases were reported last year. Maryland ranked 19th in the nation with 72 cases reported, 47 of which dealt with sex trafficking.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who presented awards to three survivors and advocates, said the Hogan administration provided at least $60 million in grants for victims’ services such as witness protection and relocation programs.

Last year, 180,000 victims received assistance. State officials hope that figure increases thanks to legislation passed in this year’s Maryland General Assembly, which ended April 8.

Lawmakers approved the designation of human trafficking as a violent crime and a felony, which will allow prosecutors to push for stronger penalties against those charged with the offense.

“I know you’re probably saying, ‘What took so long?’” Rutherford said. “We remain strongly committed to ensuring that victims of crime have the right to information, the right to provide input, the right to receive restitution and most importantly, the expectation to be treated with dignity and respect that they deserve.”

Oaks offered some advice for those who’ve experienced deaths and other tragedies of loved one.

“Take care of yourself,” she said. “We have a tendency to dig in a hole. You need to make sure you’re healthy in order to help others. No need to be alone.”

For more information and resources on human trafficking, go to humantraffickinghotline.org.

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