This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things, including the fact that I’m still here to tell my story. In 2004, I was shot when my friend’s roommate shot him, his son, and me. I only survived because I played dead. I spent a month in the hospital, four months in a wheelchair, and underwent surgeries until 2016. Years of physical therapy were only possible because I was lucky enough to have good health insurance through my job.
So many survivors have gone through similar stories of physical and emotional trauma, but they didn’t have the insurance, family or faith community that I had. Although victims’ compensation is available to all victims of crime and can help with hospital costs and a host of other services, no one told me about it until it was too late to apply.
For those without insurance, victims' compensation can be the difference between being able to afford hospital bills or burying a loved one or not.
After I was shot, there was very little in the community to support crime victims and almost no information of what was available. If I didn’t have my job, health insurance, and family support, I may not have been able to recover the way I have. I’ve come to realize that not all survivors have those tools and support systems to heal after being victimized.
Unfortunately, not being informed about victims' compensation until it is too late to apply is an all too familiar story. While stories like mine helped to change the law in 2019 and extend the deadline to apply from 1-3 years and there is now more awareness, there is still much more work to be done.
Through my recovery, I was inspired to prevent what happened to me to happen to anybody else. I later joined Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, becoming the Jacksonville coordinator, and helping elevate the voices of survivors like me in public safety policy. Together, we’re advocating for solutions to violence that can end cycles of crime and address trauma in many of our own communities.
I have known a lot of people who have lost loved ones or become victims of violence themselves. The struggle to get your life back on track after such traumatic events can seem nearly impossible. Many become at risk of losing their jobs and homes, or falling into cycles of substance abuse and despair.
Heading into the holiday season, I am grateful for the love and support of my healthy son, my mother, and grandmother, whose strength gave me the power to keep going. I am also thankful that although my doctors initially said I would never walk again, I am able to walk and move freely.
And I am also grateful for now being a part of a community of survivors like myself. We all work to support and love each other, while advocating for common sense policies that can empower victims to heal, make our communities safer, and create better alternatives than expensive prison time for people who have not caused harm in our communities. I am also grateful for the awareness we’ve raised so far, ensuring that victims have access to critical help when they are most vulnerable. This support is life changing and can put individuals and families on paths to healing instead of being left to suffer alone.
This has been an especially trying year, as we live through a pandemic and the resulting spike in violence. But despite these challenges, my fellow CSSJ members and I were able to continue our work and meet with legislators about policies that can expand help for crime survivors and improve safety.
As a survivor, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to let my voice be heard and that by speaking up, I was able to help change laws that affect those like me.
After almost losing my life in such a traumatic and violent way, I will never forget my blessings.
Feletta Smith is the Jacksonville chapter coordinator for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: At Thanksgiving, I'm grateful to be alive and grateful to help others