BRADENTON -- One after another, women approached Angie Cegnar's table Monday at the Bradenton Country Club, held her hands and hugged her, tenderly offering their heartfelt words of admiration and encouragement.
Such warmth and respect were welcome presents on the eve of her 60th birthday.
"This is special in a different way," said Cegnar, a real estate agent. "This is my new beginning."
More than 250 people who attended the Women's Resource Center's Founders Impact Luncheon would agree.
A survivor of domestic violence, Cegnar held the audience spellbound as she related her personal trials and triumph and how the support system provided by Hope Family Services and the WRC helped her regain control of her life.
"We don't know what domestic violence looks like," she said later. "It could be our brother, our sister, our friends, our neighbor. It knows no age, no religion, no economic structure.
"My message was there is help
available and it is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about."
Cegnar's experience was nightmarish:
On Jan. 24, 2011, her ex-husband attacked her daughter, a disabled Navy corpsman, inflicting permanent brain damage.
On Jan. 26, 2011, he attacked Cegnar with an ax before being served with the restraining order, but she escaped.
About a year ago, he attacked her with a hammer, but family members stopped him and he ran.
Cegnar's ex-husband has been jailed twice for 30 days, but the state would not prosecute, she said, because the only witnesses were blood relatives.
"There are all kinds of abuse -- mental, physical, financial, emotional, sexual -- and I pretty much had all of them," Cegnar said, "But after that abuse, I learned I had the strength of my family and support of Hope and Women's Resource Center and other people in my community, who I didn't even know were going through the same thing."
Sara Jane McKay and Ava Valencia also spoke about the WRC's impact on their lives professionally and privately, but Cegnar's powerful testimony had people in tears.
"Very moving," Maureen Southall said.
"Inspiring," Katie Patterson said.
"Emotional," Mary Ann Turner said.
Cegnar told of her darkest moment two years ago after her ex-husband continued violating the restraining order and stalking her and the divorce proceedings were never-ending.
She was contemplating suicide, but called her HOPE counselor.
"I was sitting on the side of the road in my car and said, 'Why bother? Why go on? He's going to kill me,'" Cegnar said. "She's the one who talked me through it. She said, 'You put your big-girl panties on right now. You have a family. You have a son and daughter. You have people who love you that you need to live for.'
"We talked for 45 minutes. I promised I will never ever say or do that again."
Cegnar's speech resonated with Ashley Brown, WRC executive director, and Laurel Lynch, her HOPE counterpart.
According to Manatee County Sheriff's Office data, there were 2,607 cases of domestic violence-related cases in 2012, which represents a decline for the third straight year since a high of 3,115 in 2009. The statistics go back to 1995. The low was 2,018 in 2002.
"She puts a face to domestic violence," Brown said. "The big thing is, people who suffer from it don't always feel comfortable talking about it."
"What we do works," Lynch said. "But sadly those who need help from domestic violence don't always come to our door. Angie Cegnar did."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix