Erath County community members channeled their heartbreak and pain Tuesday night and built a beautiful Tree of Angels.

The annual ceremony took place in the Courthouse Annex, where victims of sexual assault and violent crimes, their families and friends gathered to remember and honor survivors and lost loved ones.

“It’s essential we never forget the victims of crime,” a proclamation from Texas Governor Rick Perry read.

A resolution from the Erath County Commissioners Court was also read, naming Dec. 1, 2009 Tree of Angels Day in Erath County.

One victim’s relative, who asked not to be named, has attended the event since 2007 and said it “means a lot.”

Guest speaker Athena Dowell, a victim of sexual assault, shared her inspiring story with the intimate crowd. She stood in front of the Tree of Angels, which was placed at the entrance to the courtroom, and began her speech with tears.

“It’s an honor and a blessing to be here and share my story,” Dowell said. “Being here tonight in this very location, it’s quite hard, because right behind me is where I was and it was 14 days before Christmas when we actually went to court. This time (of year) is always a little more emotional for me than normal.”

Dowell, who has attended the ceremony since 2007, became the victim of sexual assault in 1988, when she was just four years old.

“It wasn’t until 1996, eight years later, that I was able to escape my vicious predator. I use this predator and prey analogy often. For years I felt like the prey, awaiting the next attack, almost wanting it to happen so I could have the peace of mind knowing it was over, at least until the next time,” she said.

In 2005, Dowell received a phone call that would change her life. The man who had spent nearly a decade assaulting her had assaulted another child.

“My deepest darkest secret was there for the whole world to see, at least that is how I felt,” she said.

A year later, both victims went to court to face their predator. He took a plea bargain, which amounted to two 20-year concurrent sentences for sexual assault against a minor.

While she never had to take the stand to testify, Dowell was allotted the opportunity to provide an impact statement, which she shared Tuesday night.

“I remember,” Dowell said. “I remember it all from age four to 12. I want you to know you robbed me of my childhood and innocence - two things I can never get back.”

Despite the pain that was dredged up by facing her predator, Dowell was able to move on with her life. She became a living example that beautiful things can stem from a horrible experience.

“My story does not stop here, but rather begins,” Dowell said.

She began volunteering at Cross Timbers Family Services, providing a refuge to victims like herself. Dowell also became acquainted with employees at CTFS, who she said she admires greatly.

“You hear the cries of victims daily, cries that I imagine keep you up some nights and yet you wake up every day and you return,” she said. “(The Lord) uses your voice to free his children of bondages they were never meant to carry.”

Dowell’s volunteer efforts eventually led to other avenues of aiding others.

“This brought an amazing opportunity my way. I was given the chance to share my story with Erath County,” she said. “Amanda Kimble, staff writer at the Empire-Tribune, sat down with me and listened to my story and put together an article that moved the heart of this community.”

Kimble also moved the judges at the West Texas Press Association Better Newspaper Contest 2009, Dowell said. She was awarded journalist of the year, largely in part for her work on Dowell’s story.

“Not many horror stories have fairy tale endings, but mine did - and all because of my relationship with the Lord,” she said. “Without his love and grace, I am nothing.”

The story served as inspiration for the victims of violent crimes. Dowell, along with her children and other victims and their loved ones, gathered after she shared her story and hung ornaments on the Tree of Angels.

Her ornament was a true reflection of her story in one simple word - hope.