Robb Elementary survivors are offered hope for healing in faith | #schoolshooting



UVALDE — Freshly painted and in-progress murals honoring the teachers and students murdered in the Robb Elementary School massacre can be seen outside the St. Henry de Osso Family Project building. Inside this building, late last month, divine healing was in progress for Uvalde children.

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. All around Uvalde, I’m going to let it shine. … let it shine, let it shine, let it shine,” the elementary students sang as Sister Clarice Suchy strummed her guitar. They made gestures to “act out” the music and played tambourines and maracas.

Some smiled.

Darkness has overwhelmed these children since the May 24 massacre, the second-deadliest school shooting in America, in which a gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers, injuring more than a dozen others.

Uvalde children attend Camp I CAN in wake of Robb Elementary tragedy. Video: San Antonio Express-News

Amid the anguish and division in Uvalde, the scene at the Henry de Osso building in the last week of July offered hope for healing. This old building, where the air conditioner struggles, became sacred ground for 22 rising third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, some of whom were in Robb Elementary classrooms and on the playground when the shooting began.

Two campers survived injuries; another camper’s best friend and cousin were killed. Every student here lost friends and teachers. One volunteer was a Robb teacher, present the day of the massacre.

Camp I CAN — Inner strength, Commitment, Awareness, Networking — is the vision of Sister Dolores Aviles, 67, who grew up in Uvalde and recently marked 46 years with the Society of St. Teresa of Jesus. Catholic Extension, a nonprofit headquartered in Chicago, and Hustle Fitness in Uvalde, sponsored the free camp.

Aviles, who holds a master’s degree in educational leadership, has worked as a teacher and principal at Catholic schools in Texas and other states for nearly 50 years. Her latest service is leading the St. Henry de Osso Family Project after-school tutoring organization, which began in 1993 as a home-based program.

The nonprofit hasn’t provided tutoring since the start of the pandemic, but in the aftermath of the tragedy, Aviles saw use for its 13,200-square foot building, built at the turn of the century. It was once the Uvalde Wool & Mohair Co. In 2008, Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe’s family donated the building to the St. Henry de Osso Family Project.

To get the word out about this camp, Aviles distributed flyers and placed an ad in the Uvalde Leader-News. Her mission was to help students from Robb find their inner strength.

The camp was a massive effort. Aviles, a Teresian sister, led the program with help from Suchy, Sister Mary Lou Aldape and 10 sisters from San Antonio, Kalamazoo and Los Angeles. Other volunteers from the local community included a Robb teacher and her daughter, a Uvalde college instructor. And some parents helped.

The sisters gently encouraged campers to pray about the tragedy. They didn’t hesitate.

The children repeated Suchy’s prayer:

“We remember in a special way our friends who were killed. We remember those who were hurt. We ask you to bring healing to our hearts, to our families, to our friends and to our town. Help us Jesus to know that you are always with us. And we turn to you when we are scared, when we are frightened, when we are hurting. Help us to know that our parents, and our teachers and other friends are here to help us through these times. Amen.”

Again, they sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

White Daisy campers and volunteers sing along to children’s gospel songs with Sister Clarice Suchy, not pictured, July 26, 2022, during Camp I CAN in Uvalde. The mission of the camp was to help elementary school children find their inner strength in the aftermath of the May 24 school shooting that shook the Uvalde community.
White Daisy campers and volunteers sing along to children’s gospel songs with Sister Clarice Suchy, not pictured, July 26, 2022, during Camp I CAN in Uvalde. The mission of the camp was to help elementary school children find their inner strength in the aftermath of the May 24 school shooting that shook the Uvalde community.

Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Finding strength

Campers began each day together before splitting into four small groups — White Daisy, Red Daisy, Star and Peace — for 15-minute stations of prayer, song, arts, crafts, games, exercise and mindfulness. At the end of the day, they would gather again as a group.

“I’m thinking of a word. A word that begins with F and it ends with N,” Aviles said on the first day.

“Fun!” the kids yelled.

“That’s what this week is about. It’s about having fun! Are you ready to have fun?” she asked.

“Yes! We’re ready!”

The second day began with a group photo and a prayer led by Aviles:

“Thank you Jesus, for being in the center of our lives. Help us Jesus to be like you. To think like you. To have fun like you. To love like you. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Then, she reminded them of the fun they had the day before: cornhole, pingpong, art and play.

The children enjoyed the meals, — chicken strips from Good-N-Crisp, Little Caesars pizza, sandwiches, and grilled hot dogs and burgers cooked by a parent volunteer — but the fellowship that began with prayer was the camp’s essence. It provided comfort and invoked the faith the sisters believe Uvalde needs to go forward.

The campers were asked to write messages on paper hearts during a discussion about faith and fear July 26, 2022, the second day of Camp I CAN in Uvalde.
The campers were asked to write messages on paper hearts during a discussion about faith and fear July 26, 2022, the second day of Camp I CAN in Uvalde.

Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

“We are on a journey together. We really have to lean on each other now so we can continue walking forward. This massacre — this tragedy — has broken us all,” Aviles said. “We are broken earthen vessels and the one that can heal us is Jesus Christ. He uses us as his instruments for healing. It’s a process.”

Kathryn Ayala, a Southwest Texas Junior College psychology instructor who grew up in Uvalde, volunteered at the camp with her mother, Mary Santos, who taught second grade at Robb. Santos hid in her classroom with three other classes that had run inside from the playground.

Throughout the shooting and standoff, Ayala sat a couple blocks away in her vehicle, trying to calm herself and support her mom. In texts, she told her mom she was loved and offered prayers. She told her mother to model deep breathing and calm to her students.

Hiding in her classroom, Santos did just this.

Two months later, at the camp, mother and daughter returned to this practice, leading children through sensory and deep breathing exercises.

Students ran their hands through flour and cake mixes — looking at, feeling and smelling them — using all senses except taste. They took balloons and filled them with the cake mix. Hands on their hearts, they closed their eyes, slowly squeezing the balloons, breathing deep to Ayala’s guidance.

Other children could be heard singing “This Little Light of Mine” in the next room.

“This little light of mine, Hide it under a basket? No! I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Rising fifth-graders Noah Orona, from left, Juan Padilla and Jose Daniel Martinez laugh as they perform a short puppet show July 27, 2022, during Camp I CAN in Uvalde.
Rising fifth-graders Noah Orona, from left, Juan Padilla and Jose Daniel Martinez laugh as they perform a short puppet show July 27, 2022, during Camp I CAN in Uvalde.

Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

In their hearts

Every survivor here carries a story of pain and resilience. Not every victim was shot. Some were in rooms 111 and 112. Some were in other wings. Some weren’t even in the building.

Before the shooting, Levi Cervantes, a rising fourth-grader, had nightmares about someone turning into an evil robot. He wanted to attend awards day, which was celebrated the morning of the shooting May 24, but his mother, Melissa Cervantes, kept him home. His good friend Jose Manuel Flores Jr. was murdered in his classroom that day.

Campers shared their fears on hearts made out of construction paper. On one side, they drew their fears. On the other, they drew how Jesus helps.

“How do you spell Jesus?” Ezekiel Casarez, a rising third-grader who was a student at Robb, asked Suchy.

“Jesus. Help me with my fear,” another camper wrote.

“I hate guns. Don’t sell guns,” wrote Noah Orona, who was injured in the shooting.

In green crayon, Vivian Trevino, an 11-year-old rising fifth-grader who attends the Uvalde Dual Language Academy, wrote about her second cousin Eliahna Torres and best friend Maite Rodriguez, considered a part of her family.

“Hello, Jesus. I just want to say that all I want is my best friend Sophia Cantu and me, Vivian, to see my best friend Maite and my cousin Eliahna. Please.”

Her mom, Cassandra Trevino, said the day after the shooting, she took Vivian to meet Sophia at Maite’s home. They spent time in Maite’s bedroom.

Trevino, also the mother of another camper, rising fourth-grader Soila Trevino, described grappling with guilt because her children were OK.

“I’m holding her, and I felt so guilty. Ana (Maite’s mother) was just there watching me. I felt like I should let go, but I couldn’t.”

Sisters Daysis Evangelista Uriarte Benavidez, from left, and Paubla Jaritza García Rodríguez smile as they chat and watch camper Vivian Trevino fully commit to a Hustle Fitness workout routine on July 27, 2022, duing Camp I CAN in Uvalde.
Sisters Daysis Evangelista Uriarte Benavidez, from left, and Paubla Jaritza García Rodríguez smile as they chat and watch camper Vivian Trevino fully commit to a Hustle Fitness workout routine on July 27, 2022, duing Camp I CAN in Uvalde.

Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Day to day

Ten-year-old Noah Orona’s dad, Oscar Orona, said survivors have been forgotten in the massacre’s aftermath.

Orona tries to stay away from meetings and videos, but he recently watched an unedited video of the Robb hallway that included children’s screams. He couldn’t sleep.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to look at that stuff, but part of me needed to,” he said.

Noah’s teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, were murdered shielding their students. Noah has said he witnessed at least one of his teachers get shot, his classmates dying, their mouths full of blood. He saw teeth on the floor.

In the days after his surgery, Noah was concerned about his best friend, Samuel Salinas. The two were together in photos at the award ceremony just before the shooting began. Samuel had suffered shrapnel wounds but was OK.

Noah, one of the first to be shot, missed the first day of camp because of a therapy appointment. On the camp’s second day, he stayed close to Samuel, a rising fifth-grader, as they went through the stations.

Orona has vivid memories of May 24.

Noah, a rising fifth-grader at Robb, received a music award that morning — a pleasant surprise. Noah often went to math tutoring instead of music class, yet Mireles and Garcia chose to recognize him, “a reflection of those two teachers who cared for him a lot,” Orona said.

Noah wanted to go home after the awards ceremony, but his dad said he would have to come to work with him. Besides, it was Bubble Day. Noah chose to stay at school.

After receiving the shooter alert, Orona drove to Robb, parking near the funeral home across the street from the school. He smelled gunpowder. People ran behind the funeral home, yelling, “The shooter’s outside. The shooter’s outside.”

Searching for his son, he went to the civic center, where he saw buses and Border Patrol vans bringing students.

No Noah.

“Who’s your son’s teacher?” someone asked.

“One of them is Mireles.”

He was told she was inside, but it was a different Mireles.

Two more buses arrived.

No Noah.

His wife then received a call from the Uvalde Memorial Hospital emergency room, seeking to admit Noah. They joined a sea of other panicked parents and relatives at the hospital.

About 30 to 40 minutes later, they met with Noah’s pediatrician, Dr. Roy Guerrero, who said they were airlifting Noah to Methodist Children’s Hospital in San Antonio for emergency surgery.

Orona briefly saw Noah.

“I just broke down. His whole shoulder was bandaged. I said, ‘Son, how are you?’”

“Dad, my clothes are ruined. They’re all bloody,” Noah said.

“Don’t worry about your clothes,” the father said.

The bullet had entered Noah’s back and exited from his shoulder. After a two-hour surgery and about a week in the hospital, Noah was released.

But the healing continues. Each week, he goes to trauma counseling, physical therapy and occupational therapy. His shoulder may never look normal.

“A conversation piece,” one doctor said.

Noah’s trauma is so severe, his parents are careful not to make sudden noises. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He has sleep tremors.

“We live our life day to day now because we don’t make plans because we don’t know how the day will go,” Orona said.

Noah Orona writes “I hate guns” on a heart-shaped paper after being prompted to write down his fears during a faith lesson on the second day of Camp I CAN at the St. Henry De Osso Family Project building in Uvalde on July 26, 2022. Noah was shot during the May 24 massacre.
Noah Orona writes “I hate guns” on a heart-shaped paper after being prompted to write down his fears during a faith lesson on the second day of Camp I CAN at the St. Henry De Osso Family Project building in Uvalde on July 26, 2022. Noah was shot during the May 24 massacre.

Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Hard questions, hope

Some students asked Suchy, who has served with the Teresian sisters in Uvalde since 1990, what she calls “the hard question”:

“Why does God allow bad things to happen?”

“I don’t know that I know the answer to that question,” she said. “But I do know that God takes events and allows them to change us and brings out the good of people and gives us the grace that so even though bad things happen, God also provides the grace to come together.”

Later, Aviles answered this way: “We know we have suffering because of sin. But we don’t have to stay in that suffering. We go through our calvary. We go through our pain. We feel like we are crucified, but God doesn’t let us stay crucified.”

Though darkness endures, some light shines.

Aviles savors small signs of progress, like when children smiled and skipped at camp.

“You don’t skip if you’re sad or tired. If you skip, that’s a sign of happiness. Oh, Lord, thank you!” she exclaimed.

Gathered in a circle, campers were asked to describe in one word how they felt at that moment. They were happy, excited, joyful and grateful. The sisters and volunteers were delighted.

Noah, smiling, answered: “I’m blessed.”

Nancy.Preyor-Johnson@express-news.net



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