It’s been six months since the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. Temperatures that week climbed into the high 90s, making an already unbearable situation even worse.
At a table outside Sacred Heart Parish, the town’s only Catholic church and the site of 12 funerals for victims of the shooting, Don Koenig handed out water bottles to passing mourners. A banner on the table advertised Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio; flyers promoted Grace Counseling, a newly formed program offering behavioral health services to the Uvalde community free of charge, six days a week.
“We bought cases of water to hand out. There were as many people outside the church [during the funerals] as there were inside. So, we would very respectfully offer them water, and that gave us an opportunity to be with them and to say, ‘We’re from Catholic Charities and we’re developing a service that the community really needs,’” said Koenig, a licensed counselor and social worker at Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.
Koenig traveled to Uvalde as part of a team of Catholic Charities clinicians from across the United States. All were responding to the call for aid from Catholic Charities San Antonio after the shooting, which left 19 students and two teachers dead, with 17 others wounded. Just an hour and a half from Uvalde, San Antonio is the nearest of the network of 167 local agencies that are members of Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA).
It wasn’t only as a behavioral health professional and a representative of the Catholic Charities community that Koenig went to Uvalde, but as a parent who has lost a child himself, in a car accident. He stayed in Texas for two weeks.
“As I talked with people through a therapeutic lens, I learned of this concept of compounded grief. Because they didn’t know just one person affected by the tragedy,” said Koenig.
“The first person I spoke with was a grandparent who was grieving the loss of a grandchild and was also on her way to the hospital for a cousin who got shot.”
In fact, he said, that was common in the small community.
There was almost no one who wasn’t affected. “It was just such an awesome depth of grief and loss.”
A Coordinated Effort
In response, Catholic Charities San Antonio spearheaded a coordinated effort with CCUSA to provide immediate and ongoing behavioral health services and other support for the people of Uvalde.
Reynaldo Acosta, vice president of programs at St. PJ’s Children’s Home in San Antonio, a Catholic Charities partner program, organized the volunteers on site in Uvalde and is overseeing the ongoing effort. Word of the shooting reached the Catholic Charities staff in San Antonio as it was happening, because one staff member has a relative in Uvalde.
Acosta and his team immediately sprang into action, in coordination with Sacred Heart, and had counselors at the church by 9 o’clock the morning after the shooting. In the days and weeks that followed, volunteers came from across the country, as well as from Texas.
“We had calls from everywhere, the minute we sent out a request for assistance. We were bombarded with, ‘What can we do?’ from Washington, Puerto Rico, all over,” Acosta said. “It was very touching and just shows the passion that people have to help.”
Acosta praised the support that CCUSA member agencies are able to offer one another in times of crisis.
“We know that there’s always help within Catholic Charities organizations. It was very humbling and in line with what our Catholic values are.”
With so many Catholics in Uvalde, the community’s response has often been to turn to the church, to Sacred Heart, Acosta pointed out. That’s why Grace Counseling is headquartered at the parish, and why it was important that behavioral health providers talked with the community about faith.
Koenig, who has worked for Catholic Charities for more than 30 years and took part in disaster response after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, said he encouraged people to rely on their Catholic beliefs. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and leaned on his own religious convictions after he lost his daughter. “I tell them, now is the time where you can’t doubt your faith. Doubt your doubts.”
Catholic parishes and Catholic Charities agencies across the country sent food and other donations, including therapeutic toys for children such as teddy bears, Legos and fidget toys for anxiety.
They covered the Grace Counseling table outside Sacred Heart, alongside rosaries and information about how mass shootings affect children and families.
“We would say, ‘Please take one.’ Anything that would help make a child smile, we were just hoping to be part of that,” Koenig recalled, “and then we’d give them a flyer, for if [they] or somebody [they] know might benefit from talking to somebody.”
Offering Cross-Cultural Support
It was important that at Grace Counseling, volunteers spoke both English and Spanish.
“For someone to come and be able to explain their grief and loss and their feelings, and to speak in whatever language they were comfortable with, was so much easier for them,” said Koenig. “It was much more natural and a cathartic release.”
Speaking Spanish with the community also helped build trust, said Jaime Rivera, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical supervisor of counseling services at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, four hours east of Uvalde. Rivera helped in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and again when school started in the fall.
“Being able to not just understand a different language, but to understand the nuances of the culture is a huge difference,” said Rivera. “Having the kids see people that they could identify with, that look like them or people in their community,” was a way to gain their trust.
Along with Rivera and two other staff members from Galveston-Houston – Jeimy Tompson and Mirtha Marlene Alvarez – additional counselors were in place at the parish school for the first two weeks of the semester. Enrollment there increased, since Robb Elementary did not reopen and families were looking for spiritual support, Rivera said. The counselors offered individual meetings and were present at drop-off, pickup and recess, to show students and families they were available.
“Being an advocate for mental health support, and having the kids tell the parents, ‘Oh, I met a counselor today,’ or ‘I met a social worker today,’ having those positive interactions is going to have a ripple effect and make people more open to talk about emotional and mental health needs,” Rivera said. “Our role is not just to treat the individual but also to promote the benefits of mental health support and break down stigmas that may exist, either in communities or on an individual level.”
Going forward, Grace Counseling plans to staff a counselor or a social worker at the parish school full time.
“Our goal is to evolve and continue to be there,” Acosta said. “When we first started, we knew that it was going to change, sometimes hourly, sometimes daily, weekly, what services people needed. When it comes to trauma, we know that everyone experiences trauma differently and deals with it in different ways.”
The therapists anticipate that milestones such as the anniversary of the shooting and birthdays of the victims will trigger grief and anxiety.
Said Acosta, “It’s really just continuous outreach and letting people know that we’re still here and we haven’t gone anywhere, and we’re going to continue to be a part of Uvalde.”
Maura Sullivan Hill is a writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee.