White balloons shaped like doves, assisted into the air by Mariah McGhee and former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, floated above a white tent on the lawn of the Pennsylvania Military Museum on Saturday as “Amazing Grace” played in the background.
Under the tent sat a table, with a portrait of Courtney McGhee, Mariah’s mother, purple, heart-shaped lanterns and domestic violence resource cards.
The vigil for Courtney McGhee, who would have turned 42 on Monday, served two purposes — to celebrate Courtney McGhee’s life, and to bring attention to domestic violence.
“I want people to know more about domestic violence because that is how my mother lost her life,” Mariah said as she addressed the nearly 90 people who came out despite the rain. “Domestic violence is silent, and people need to understand that, because the warning signs sometimes are there and (sometimes) they aren’t there.”
Mariah, who just turned 14, helped organize the vigil with her family as a way to honor her mother for her birthday.
“I think it came together beautifully, I don’t think it could have come together any other way,” she said.
Since her mother’s death in June, Mariah said she wants to honor her memory by being an advocate for increased awareness about domestic violence.
“One of the things that has moved me so much is despite the way the family lost her, they’re turning it into good,” Parks Miller said. “It’s time to awaken Centre County’s realization that domestic violence can happen to anyone, and that someone as good as Courtney is not spared from it. Her daughter has made it her mission, her family has made it their mission, to make sure that they can do everything so that her death is not in vain.”
Parks Miller said they plan to make the vigil an annual event to honor Courtney McGhee’s “very vibrant life,” and to continue to educate the public on domestic violence.
According to current District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, who also spoke, 102 people lost their lives to domestic violence in Pennsylvania last year, while there were 122 cases that didn’t end with a fatality in Centre County alone. In the past 10 years, seven county fatalities have been related to domestic abuse and domestic relations, he said.
Cantorna said that to honor Courtney McGhee and her family, people should educate themselves about the warning signs, stay connected to the people in their neighborhoods, families and communities, and to reach out to people who are experts in the field — such as Anne Ard, director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.
Ard spoke for the last part of the program, to help educate the crowd on how to understand, identify and prevent domestic violence.
“I want you all to remember Courtney as you become experts in domestic violence and advocates for victims,” she said. “We need all of us to know, our community needs to know how to stop domestic violence.”
Ard stressed to the crowd that although there are sometimes warning signs when it comes to domestic abuse cases, people should not feel guilt for not seeing them.
“You need to remember that there’s one person responsible for Courtney’s death, just one. And he’s the one who was held accountable for it,” she said.
Charles McGhee pleaded guilty in December before the case went to trial in the death of his wife, Courtney, which police say he tried to cover up by setting the house on fire, while Mariah was still inside.
He was charged with first- and third-degree murder, aggravated arson and flight to avoid apprehension — all felonies.
Pastor Kenneth Codner, of Bellefonte, gave an opening and closing prayer for Courtney, who was said to have had a strong faith in God.
“I don’t know why God didn’t spare Courtney, but I can tell you that he did spare her,” he said, pointing to Mariah. “And he spared her for a reason.”
Domestic violence resources
Centre County Women’s Resource Center: 24-hour hotline: 234-5050, 877-234-5050 (toll free)
Police non-emergency: 800-479-0050
Mount Nittany Medical Center: 234-6110
MidPenn Legal Services: 238-4958
Centre County District Attorney: 355-6735
Penn State Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response: 867-0099