SEBRING — In their own ways, people at Thursday’s dedication of Reflection Park honored the five women who died there.
Some families had several members in T-shirts emblazoned with photographs of their lost loved ones and scripture or poetry on the back, encapsulating their feeling over their losses. Some, especially local pastors, dressed in their Sunday best, while most wore their business attire save for one addition: An orange heart pinned to a lapel by a magnet, signifying “Sebring Strong.”
Thursday’s crowd at the dedication of a park to celebrate and memorialize Debra Cook, Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Ana Piñon-Williams and Cynthia Watson numbered in the hundreds, packing all the parking spaces in the former bank parking lot, adjacent hotels and professional offices and even the shoulder of U.S. 27 and Tubbs Road, just as emergency vehicles had packed those spaces a year ago, when a mass shooting took the women’s lives.
Few words, if any, were spoken Thursday about the shooting, except by law enforcement officers in attendance, and only then in personal conversation.
Thursday was, instead, for the families and community to dedicate a place of peace and healing.
Prior to opening the ceremony, Mayor John Shoop told the Highlands News-Sun he found it eerie how he oversaw clearing of the site for the SunTrust branch that has been razed since the shooting for a memorial park.
The footprint is the same, he said, including the parking spaces.
“On this date, a year ago, we just had an unimaginable tragedy happen to us,” he said in his opening remarks. “It’s something that, you know, we know happens around the world, it happens around our country, but it doesn’t happen to us. And it happened to us.”
However, it didn’t break the community, he said.
“We’ve got a great community. We’ve always had a great community. We work well together,” Shoop said. “This event has brought us even closer.”
He expressed pride in all the people who came together afterward to help bolster the community against despair.
“We’ve got a very strong faith in this community, and it’s shown, and that’s what we need to continue to do,” Shoop said. “This shows the rest of the world that, ... that there is unity out there, and it’s here. It’s with us. that’s something that we can give — out of a tragedy that’s happened — that we can give to the rest of the world to say, ‘Listen, we need to get our act together, as a country, as a ... nation, and work together and do good things, as what’s happened here.”
He gave thanks to members of the SunTrust Foundation, now under the name of Truist Financial Corporation. Members of that team were in Sebring immediately after the tragedy and for weeks afterward, attending to the needs of the families of victims, the company’s employees and the community.
Shoop invited people to visit the park in the future, to take time out of daily life to reflect on the people who are most important to us.
Truist Chief Operating Officer Bill Rogers, who also spoke, said the teammates in Sebring went to work on Jan. 23, 2019, to serve the community and their clients as they did every day.
“And their lives tragically ended in that service,” Rogers said. “We honor them today on behalf of over 50,000 teammates, now at Truist, who are doing the exact same thing today all across our company.”
He also thanked family members for coming to the dedication to honor and remember their loved ones.
“We’re going to honor and remember your loved ones, and this [park] is a manifestation of that,” Rogers said. “That will always be the case.”
He said the collective healing would be a long journey, and he committed to the families and community that “we’re all on that journey together, and we’ll be on that journey for a very, very long time.”
Rogers then thanked emergency responders who served their community in the midst of the tragedy last year.
He said he’s been moved to live a life of having more humility, hope and love each day.
Kimberly Dorsett, retail marketing executive for Truist Bank, closed the comments by telling about the outpouring of support shown in the past year.
“You, the Sebring community, immediately rallied to the sides of the families, each other, all of us,” Dorsett said.
A ground-swell of support went out early on, she said, with banners and logos of “Sebring Strong” all over town.
“Each of you were strong when we all needed it,” she said, adding thanks for José Sanchez for putting out Christmas trees and lights to honor the women and their families.
“We know that the deepest bonds are forged at the darkest times,” Dorsett said, noting that this happened for SunTrust/Truist and Sebring.
She then invited those present to enjoy a short performance by the José Rojas Trio playing a jazz version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”