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Crime Victim Advocate Anthony Harris, left, shakes hands with Ricardo Colina Sr. during a break from the sentencing of the killers of Colina's son, Ricardo Colina II outside Contra Costa County A.F. Bray Courthouse in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, April 26, 2013. Harris has helped the Colina family through the whole court process of convicting their son's killers and was awarded and honored at the Victim's Rights Week Recognition Ceremony for his years of dedication. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

MARTINEZ -- Victims of violent crimes and their families often find the criminal justice system scary and confusing, but it's not something they have to face alone.

Contra Costa County's Victim Assistance Program has a team of staff and volunteers dedicated to supporting victims and families at the darkest times of their lives, walking beside them on the path to closure. The program, operated under the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office since 2004, was invaluable to Essie and Ricardo Colina Sr., whose 20-year-old son, Ricardo Colina II, was murdered in West Contra Costa County in 2009.

"We need help, especially victims who lose a child like we have. The impact of that is unbelievable," Ricardo Colina Sr. said.

"Going to court, hearing all the details -- it's devastating," Essie Colina said. "There's nothing like it. It cuts your heart out of your chest."

In the more than three years it took for their son's killers to be convicted and sentenced, the Colinas saw several prosecutors and defense attorneys come and go from the case. Always present was their victim advocate, Anthony Harris.

"My life will never be the same, never. I'm still just trying to learn how to live again," Ricardo Colina said Friday. "Anthony Harris was there to help me take steps to be able to walk in life again because I was at a point where I didn't want to live."

Advocates such as Harris help victims from the time a serious crime occurs, past the sentencing. In the most disappointing scenarios, where no one is charged with the offense, they are there as well.

At the Richmond and Pittsburg police stations, advocates help recent victims get emergency services. At the courthouse, advocates accompany the victims to court, hold their hands and pass them tissue. They help them fill out the paperwork to get victim compensation funds for medical expenses, funeral costs, counseling and, in some cases, relocation.

They explain the legal process, which is frequently delayed by state and county budget cuts.

"Most people in our communities have no experience in the criminal justice system. It can be very overwhelming, so they need someone who understands the process and breaks it down so they don't have to be so afraid of the unknown," said Shannon Mahoney, interim director of the program.

Last week, in recognition of Victims' Rights Week in California, the program honored Harris and nine others for their work in victims' rights last year.

Antioch resident Lucinda Jackson also was honored for her perseverance and grace through two trials in the quest for justice for her son, Andrew Le'Mar Green, who was murdered by his son's mother in Pittsburg in 2010.

It was at the award ceremony that Jackson decided to volunteer for the program at the Pittsburg police station. She considers the advocate on her case, Crystal Carey, part of her family.

"She lifted me up; just having her there was everything to me." Jackson said. "I want to sit down with other parents who have lost their children and give them the same support that Crystal gave me."

Most days are hard, said Harris, one of the first advocates employed by the District Attorney's Office. One time, a mother collapsed on the floor in tears upon hearing a not guilty verdict for the person accused of killing her son, and Harris had to bring the inconsolable woman to her feet and counsel her.

But the rewarding moments are abundant, he said. Victims of past cases frequently call, often on anniversaries and holidays, to say life is better now, or just thank you.

"That's what re-energizes us to do it again," he said.

Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.