After being robbed at gunpoint while working in a casino in Butte in 2007, Mining City resident Sharon Wilson was left with wounds that lasted long after the crime took place.
On that day in 2007, Wilson thought she might die, but her life didn't flash before her eyes. Instead she lived in the moment as the man who robbed the casino forced her to lie on the ground and count to 10. With the counting of each number, Wilson said, she didn't know what would happen next – whether her time would be up.
"The whole time I was lying on the floor face down, all I could think about was at which number he was going to shoot me," said Wilson. "And if it was going to hurt."
Flash forward to a little more than 10 years later, and Wilson's on a mission to help crime victims find healing through what's known as a victim impact panel. It's something that helped her find healing, Wilson said, and she'd like to see one started in Butte.
Jamie Rogers, victim program manager for the Montana Department of Corrections, says the panels take place at prisons and pre-release centers throughout the state as part of a 32-hour "victimology" curriculum for offenders that is administered by department-trained facilitators.
The panels — which usually take place at the end of the 32-hour course, called "Listen and Learn"— give victim volunteers the opportunity to tell their stories.
Wilson learned about victim impact panels after receiving a call from a victim volunteer who asked if she'd be willing to attend. Wilson agreed and soon found herself speaking to a room of offenders.
"It was really, really intimidating at first to be in the prison system and talking to probably a group of 20 grown men, offenders," said Wilson. "But it was really actually therapeutic, and it kind of strengthened me, and it's been something I've been passionate about ever since."
Wilson said life wasn't easy in the years that followed the robbery. She tried to recover quickly and live a normal life, but she ended up having to leave her job following a mental-health medical leave.
Darla McCarthy, the victim-witness advocate for the Butte-Silver Bow county attorney's office, says it's not uncommon for victims to feel the impact of crime in multiple domains of their lives, ranging from employment to relationships with friends and family members, and it's precisely these experiences that the panels aim to unveil.
Rogers said studies (such as one by Alpert Medical School at Brown University) show that the Listen and Learn curriculum can help prevent recidivism among offenders, but the victim impact panels are primarily intended to help victims recover from their experiences.
"There's a physiological healing process if you tell your story," Rodgers said.
Currently there are about 37 victim volunteers who take part in the panels at 10 different locations throughout the state, Rodgers said.
Their experiences are often heartbreaking, she added, saying they run the gamut from those told by parents who have lost their children to drunk driving to the victims of sexual assault.
"It's very emotional," said Rogers. "It's pretty powerful to hear those stories."
Since attending her very first panel, Wilson has spoken at prisons and pre-release centers throughout the state, sometimes traveling as far as Billings and Shelby. In 2014, she received training to implement the panels from the Montana Department of Corrections. And now, she said, she's focused on drumming up support to get one set up in Butte.
"I think Butte as a community has a lot to offer and has a lot of support to do these victim impact panels," said Wilson. "It's just that the victims here in Butte need to have their voices heard and stand up and speak out, and that's what I want to encourage."
As part of her job, McCarthy connects victims with a variety of services, such as Butte's Safe Space for the victims of domestic violence. She also provides referrals to mental health services, connects victims with public funding sources for things like funerals and medical bills, and helps victims write impact statements that they can read during pre-sentence investigations in front of their offenders in court.
"Letting them know they have a voice is rewarding to me," said McCarthy, reflecting on the job.
Soon Wilson will take part in a form of restorative justice.
The man who committed the robbery in 2007 has been released on probation and parole, and both he and Wilson have protection orders against each other, Wilson said.
But soon they will meet face to face in what's known as a "victim-offender dialogue."
Rogers said the dialogues are designed to take place after a trained facilitator meets with the offender over a period of six months to a year to ensure that the meeting is appropriate and won't cause harm to the victim.
When asked what she wants to get out of the dialogue, Wilson says she hopes the meeting will help her turn to a new page in her life.
"I'm hoping to get some closure. I'm hoping to get some answers, and I'm hoping that we both get some growth," she said.