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In the small town of 15,000, no one was more than a single degree of separation from the grief that gripped Uvalde after 19 children and two teachers were killed on May 24.
Before the names of the victims were released, Communities in Schools of San Antonio — an affiliate of the national student advocacy nonprofit — sent Spanish-speaking counselors to Uvalde to help through the most difficult summer in its history.
As survivors relived the horrific day and children struggled with fear and anxiety, more than three dozen CIS staff were on hand to listen and respond, laying the groundwork for a permanent team to come this school year.
They knew that grief in Uvalde would be everywhere.
“There’s a weight that exists.” San Antonio Communities in Schools CEO Jessica Weaver said for the city, whether or not they lost a friend or family member in the shooting. “It’s hard to share closeness at this point.”
While not every community will have to respond to this exact tragedy, the intense month at Uvalde reiterated what it means to be trauma-informed, staff told The 74; and full of reminders for those who want to help in the wake of the tragedy.
To go where you are invited, to do what is required
Communities in Schools’ access to a nationwide network of experienced mental health professionals perfectly suited the needs of the grieving community, but it was their relationship-based approach that made it work, said Lisa Descant, CEO of Communities in Houston Schools, which joined the Weaver Team at Uvalde.
“We are outsiders walking into this close-knit community,” Descant said.
Many families have been in Uvalde, a small farming town in west Texas, for generations. School Superintendent Hal Harrell is the son of a former superintendent. Familiar surnames appear for decades on city council, school boards and yearbook advertisements. Losses and wounds are felt deeply, in ways that are not immediately apparent.
Weaver envisioned the importance of inviting and listening closely to the community, rather than simply walking in. While she understood the impulse to help, observing the scene on the ground in Uvalde in the month after the shooting showed her how confusing and unsettling that help can be. when it is uninvited and irresponsible.
Communities in Schools operates in 1,300 locations providing professional mental health services, with professionals trained to address acute and long-term trauma and the effects of poverty when they occur in schools.
Weaver brought together 42 community-in-schools (CIS) colleagues from across the state—counselors and social workers—to provide clinical services from a base inside Uvalde schools that offered summer school just weeks after the shooting.
Psychological First Responses
San Antonio clinic worker Sarah Martinez was one of the first to arrive and soon found herself talking to children and adults who were in a state of shock — some confused, some overwhelmed.
“This is not therapy, it is a first response,” she said. The staff had to have an EMT or firefighter reflexes to respond to whatever came up, whatever happened next.
“The people of Uvalde are experts in this terrible, terrible tragedy,” Descant said.
They would still need that first responder mentality when summer school started on June 7. News crews still lined the streets, many now investigating the police’s handling of the shooting. Politicians held press conferences. Police squads from all over Texas patrolled the city. The news still broke almost daily, reopening wounds.
For many, Descant said, the process of “reliving” the shooting went on for weeks.
Care for the caregiver
In those first few weeks, she said, Communities In Schools made the first pivot. Even as seasoned professionals, they had not fully anticipated how much secondary trauma the staff would absorb, listening to stories, immersed in a grieving community. They already knew that rotating teams every week was important, giving staff a chance to see their families, rest and process.
But even a week would be too long for staff to put off looking after their own emotional well-being. They were experiencing the trauma secondhand as people shared stories of fear and loss, and staff began to feel the overload and burden themselves.
They quickly realized they would need their own emotional and mental health checks, focused on the impact each counselor was experiencing.
“You have to prioritize caring for the caregiver,” Weaver said, “It’s not an option.”
Martinez admits she was the one who needed clear instructions to leave. “Some of us don’t know when to stop and have to be told,” she said. “You are grieving along with the community.”
The pain is long-lasting. Help should be too
Because they would have to rotate, Weaver was clear with the staff that they needed to connect Uvalde residents with Communities in Schools as an organization, not with any particular staff person. More than that, they wanted students to associate school with safety, support and care — a tall order in the wake of senseless tragedy.
“It was about creating a safe place in a large environment where safety and security were under attack,” said Kim Sayers, clinical project director for Communities in San Antonio Schools.
The School Community Rooms at each school, which the staff decorated and arranged as they would on any campus, became a reliable place where a counselor was always ready to talk, to listen to anyone when feelings or memories of the day came flooding back. of the shooting.
While the shooting seems to eclipse all other concerns right now, it’s not the only thing going on in students’ lives, Descant said. They are more than students or survivors of Robb Elementary. They are children who will experience success and love, along with frustration, disappointment and heartbreak.
“They had complicated lives before that,” she said, “as we all do.”
The bitterness, the complications, none of it was going anywhere anytime soon. Wawer and school leadership knew it would take more than a summer for healing to take hold. So Communities in Schools are staying.
The district signed a contract with the nonprofit organization to bring permanent Communities in Schools counselors so that whenever grief strikes, and as normal life resumes, Uvalde residents know where to go when they need someone to help them. heard.
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