Update: Editor’s note: This story is part of our focus on solutions put forward to tackle big and small social problems in our communities. Our evidence-based reporting explores challenges in Texas and looks for examples set by people trying to find answers that help.
Beth Hegarty sat in a meeting at her daughters’ school when she heard gunshots.
Her second-grade, triplet daughters were in Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 first-graders and six adults were killed in the country’s deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school.
Hegarty’s children were “completely traumatized.”
She never put her kids on the bus again. Her girls still look for exit doors in public and don’t like crowds.
“I sent three seemingly normal 7-year-olds to school that day, and that’s not what I got back,” Hegarty said. “And I’m just a regular mom, right? Doing my thing. They didn’t get that back either. They didn’t get their mom back.”
Helping the family and others in the community navigate their trauma in the aftermath was the Resiliency Center of Newtown, a nonprofit organization that offers ongoing healing to anyone impacted by the tragic events. It has become a hub for people in the community to gather and heal.
Stephanie Cinque, the center’s founder, opened the space nine months after the shooting, recognizing the need for long-term support, non-traditional therapies and a safe gathering space. The Hegartys have used resources at the Resiliency Center of Newtown since day one.
The center’s journey over the last decade may provide critical lessons on how to help families in the years following May’s tragedy in Uvalde, where 19 fourth-graders and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School.
Already, similar mental health support for the South Texas community is gearing up.
A Family Assistance Center, established by the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, has transformed into the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center, run by the Ecumenical Center, a mental health service center based out of San Antonio. Uvalde’s center has had more than 2,800 client visits since it opened June 4.
Officials plan to keep the center open for at least five years. Currently, it is offering training for trauma-informed care and self care, support groups for all ages, free legal aid and other support.
Cinque said having mental health support available in Uvalde well into the future is key. She noted that five years was just touching the “tip of the iceberg” in Newtown as many kids who were in elementary school during the mass shooting did not process their trauma until their teenage years.
And while many children, first responders and teachers did use the center right away, Cinque said it took longer for others to feel like they were ready to ask for help.
“A lot of it is clearly communicating with your community of what’s going on and what’s available,” Cinque said. “And realizing that people who have endured a trauma may not hear you or really obtain what you’re saying right away. So being consistent, clear and repetitive and having a place where people can gather and be together” is important.
Helping Uvalde families
The Ecumenical Center helping the Uvalde community has experience in helping communities heal. It has set up resiliency centers after other mass shootings — including those in Sutherland Springs and El Paso.
The center is nationally certified in trauma-informed care and offers counseling services and various therapies, including those in play, art and music.
While experiences in the other communities have prepared those staffing the Uvalde center, it’s consistency and local ties that will make the difference for families long-term, said Mary Beth Fisk, executive director of The Ecumenical Center.
Some of the center’s staff live in Uvalde while several of the specialists drive in from neighboring communities, such as Laredo and San Antonio. While Fisk is standing in as interim director of the center, she said the goal is for the community to be “wholeheartedly” represented at the center to create a familiar, trusting space.
“The people that will stand up and be the backbone to the resilience center long-term will be from Uvalde,” Fisk said.
While mental health resources may be scarce, the need is not.
Research suggests mass shooting survivors may be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters, according to a report from the American Psychological Association. The association also noted that psychologists’ research suggests it is critical to ensure victims have ongoing support available to them in the aftermath of mass violence.
Trauma never goes away, said Hegarty and her daughter, Jackie, who is now 17. It sticks with a family.
But it becomes less prominent in life when you learn how to cope, they said.
For many of the kids who were affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy, having the resiliency center available as they got older was vital. Jackie, now a high school senior, said it took about five years for her to process her experience and talk about it.
“When I was a kid, I would deflect talking about certain things and just, like, channel it into the art or the play therapy,” she said. Adding, “It was just kind of going through the motions and using the therapies, but I didn’t really kind of deal with the really heavy stuff until I was older.”
Helping youngsters navigate a tragedy over several years means intentional outreach and training that resonates with them, Cinque said.
Cinque and therapists at the center were trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, which teaches adults how to help adolescents experiencing a mental health or addiction challenge. They, in turn, trained others across the community.
Kids needed structure, routine and a place where they could be kids again, Cinque said. So the center offered a variety of programs. Girls on the Run, for example, gave kids an exercise outlet where they could work through trauma together even if that wasn’t the focus of the activity.
“We were dealing with very young children, so you weren’t going to sit a 6-year-old down and talk about it,” Cinque said.
As the students impacted grew up, the center adjusted its services. For example, the therapies provided now have shifted more toward art rather than play.
A 2018 report from the Sandy Hook School Support Fund found a “deep appreciation” among community members surveyed for the longer-term help.
While many counselors provided short-term support immediately after the mass shooting, the center provided a consistent, trusted source, said Aimee Tabor, a Sandy Hook parent.
“Everyone else left when their attention shifted,” Tabor said. “That’s what was so important about having the center. Coping with trauma is not about moving on. It’s about moving forward.”
The center is a touchstone of support when other mass shootings happen or when important milestones near, Cinque said.
After Uvalde, the center saw one of its largest increases in clients coming for the first time and returning.
Beth Hegarty, who has worked as office manager at the center for four years, said the phones kept ringing.
“After Texas, people came in that day. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t want to be home alone. They just came in, you know, just to be with people,” she said. “It’s hard. It’s hard. Every single time there’s been another school shooting, it’s unbelievably triggering for all of us.”
A locally run space to gather, build relationships
The long-term success of the center is rooted in community ties.
While Newtown already had mental health resources in the community, such as the Newtown Youth and Family Services, Cinque said there were “clearly not enough people to respond to an immense tragedy when you have a whole town of over 25,000 people all having different reactions.”
Cinque left her job as a social worker for the Connecticut Public Defender’s Office to open the center. She wanted it to be a source of community healing and to bring in therapies not readily available across the town, such as music therapy or brainspotting — a therapy that uses a person’s eye position to help identify trauma.
Over the years, the center has held camps, seminars, open houses and other events to keep families connected. That’s made it a “bedrock of consistent, unwavering support at a time when our community needed it most,” Tabor said.
A locally run center helps people feel safe and prevents them from isolating in their grief, Cinque said.
“People know me; people know my kids; people know the therapists; people know the office manager,” Cinque said. “We aren’t strangers in the community.”
Jackie said being with others she knew who were navigating the same experiences helped her not to feel judged because they understood each other.
“Being there with other survivors created a community, and they didn’t make me feel invalidated,” the teen said.
Through these relationships, they’re able to heal, Cinque added.
Still, the center had to navigate the biggest challenge to offering such ongoing support: funding.
The Resiliency Center of Newtown relies on federal and state grants as well as local, private and corporate donations. The center spends about $230,000 a year on services to families, according to the most recent tax filing available.
Teachers, students, parents, first responders and anyone else who was in the elementary school at the time of the tragedy receives free services. The center raises additional funds to offer services at reduced costs to others.
Financial assistance is key. According to the 2018 SHSSF report, helping individuals and families with counseling costs continued to be the top priority for community members, followed by opportunities for connections and wellness activities.
As Uvalde responds to the mental health needs in its community, Cinque said clear communication and trauma education are needed to help parents — and others — know how to talk to kids and recognize signs that they need help.
“When you’re in a small community like Uvalde, like Newtown, there’s not a single person who lived there on 12/14 that wasn’t impacted whether you were in that school or not, whether you had a child or you didn’t have a child,” Cinque said. “The town suffered that loss together. But with that came growth and resilience of the whole town and community.”
Jackie knows she’ll carry on lessons learned from the center, which she said helped her find her voice. In the wake of Uvalde, the teenager started making public speeches and attending events to speak out against gun violence.
“You can’t be this vocal about something like this if you’re not stable,” Jackie said. She added, “I don’t want another 7-year-old to be sitting in their cubbies in their classroom petrified that they’re gonna get killed.”
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Haeven Gibbons, staff writer. Haeven Gibbons is an intern for the Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News. Gibbons is currently working toward a BA in journalism with a minor in Spanish at Texas Christian University. She loves learning about other people, issues and cultures.