Tree of Angels remembers victims of violent crimes in Highland Lakes

U.S. Marshal Hector Gomez visits with local Tree of Angels organizer Cindy Westbrook after last year’s ceremony. Gomez returns as the speaker for the 2014 Tree of Angels lighting and dedication Dec. 6 at Cornerstone Baptist Church, 408 Ave. R in Marble Falls. The ceremony remembers the victims of violent crimes from Llano, Blanco, Burnet and San Saba counties. Doors open at 4 p.m. with the ceremony starting at 5 p.m. The public is invited. Courtesy photo


MARBLE FALLS — Can you name one person who recently died in the Highland Lakes from a violent crime?

If you answered “no,” you’re probably in the majority. But Cindy Westbrook, a local organizer for Tree of Angels, wants to help you remember those victims.

“So often, people remember the offender, but they can’t remember the victim’s or victims’ names,” Westbrook said. “The media and others focus so much on the offender, that the victims are forgotten.”

On Dec. 6, the community is invited to remember the victims of violent crimes in Burnet, Blanco, San Saba and Llano counties, which make up the 33rd/424th Judicial Districts. The annual Tree of Angels ceremony recognizes the victims and survivors as well as their families and friends. During the program, family members and survivors place an angel on the tree in honor of their loved ones. For some of the people, this has become an annual event as their loved one died in years past, but for others, unfortunately, this will be the first year to place an angel.

“We have seven new angels going up on the tree this year,” Westbrook said. “It’s not an easy thing, necessarily, for the family. But for some, especially those who have done it before, it’s almost comforting because they see that their angel is loved and remembered.”

Verna Lee Carr initiated the Tree of Angels program in 1991 in Austin to help families who had lost someone to violent crimes. Eventually, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office stepped in to help. The practice soon began to spread, and in 1998, former 33rd/424th District Attorney Sam Oatman brought the ceremony to the Highland Lakes.

This year, Gov. Rick Perry declared Dec. 1-7 as Tree of Angels Week.

In 2005, the Hill Country Survivors of Violent Crime took over the program to ensure it continues in years to come. Westbrook and her husband, Bill Bilbrey, the executive directors of the program, work to make sure the community remembers these victims.

“A loss of any loved one is so hard, but when it’s from a violent crime, the hurt is tenfold,” Westbrook said. “The Tree of Angels and the ceremony are one way survivors and family members of violent crime victims can get some healing and comfort.”

The simple act of unwrapping the angel from its box and placing it on the tree can mean so much to family members and survivors. Some people return every year to participate in the ceremony, while others make it once.

“But they know that their angel will be placed on the tree and taken care of,” Westbrook said. “And that means so much to them.”

The Dec. 6 ceremony, which is open to the public, takes place at Cornerstone Baptist Church, 408 Ave. R in Marble Falls. Doors open at 4 p.m. with the ceremony starting at 5 p.m.

U.S. Marshal Hector Gomez will serve as the speaker.

After the ceremony, the Tree of Angels will be set in “repose” in the lobby of Marble Falls city hall, 800 Third St., until the first Monday after New Year’s Day. At that point, organizers will take down the tree, gently wrap the angels and securely store them until the 2015 ceremony. And hopefully and prayerfully, no more angels will join them.

Call (325) 388-4720 for more information on the Tree of Angels or the Hill Country Survivors of Violent Crime.

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