Trauma counselors across Texas travel to Uvalde – The 74

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In a small town of 15,000 people, there was no one to be separated from the grief that erupted after the killing of 19 children and two teachers on May 24.

Before the names of the victims were even released, Communities in Schools of San Antonio — an arm of the national student support nonprofit organization — sent Spanish-speaking counselors to Uvalde to help them through the toughest summer in their history.

As survivors relived the terrifying 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 arrive this school year.

They knew the grief in Uvalde would be ubiquitous.

“There’s a heaviness that just exists.” Communities in San Antonio CEO Jessica Weaver’s schools said about the city, whether or not they lost a friend or family member to the shooting. “It’s hard to distinguish proximity at this point.”

Although not every community had to respond to this exact tragedy, the intensive month in Uvalde reiterated what it means to be trauma-informed, Staff told The 74; And full of reminders for those who want to help in times of tragedy.

Go where you are invited, do what you are asked

Communities in Schools’ access to a statewide network of experienced mental health professionals fits the needs of grieving communities perfectly, but their relationship-based approach worked, said Lisa Descant, CEO of Communities in Schools in Houston. Weaver’s team at Uvalde.

“We’re outsiders coming into this close-knit community,” Descant said.

Many families have lived in Uvalde, a small farming town in West Texas, for generations. School Superintendent Hal Harrell is the son of a former superintendent. Familiar last names have appeared on city councils, school boards, and yearbook ads for decades. Losses and wounds are felt deeply, in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Weaver anticipates the importance of being invited and listening closely to the community, rather than just stepping in. While he understood the impulse to help, observing the underground scene that emerged in the months after the shooting showed him how confusing and unsatisfying this help could be. When it is uninvited and unanswered.

Communities in Schools provides professional mental health services at 1,300 sites, with professionals trained to address the effects of acute and chronic trauma and poverty as they occur in schools.

Weaver assembled 42 Community in Schools (CIS) colleagues from across the state—counselors and social workers—to provide clinical services from a base within Uvalde Schools, which offered summer school in the weeks after the shooting.

Psychological first responders

Sara Martinez, a San Antonio clinical caseworker, 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.

“It’s not therapy, it’s first responders,” she said. Employees must have the reflexes of an EMT or firefighter to respond to whatever comes next.

“The people of Uvalde are the experts on this terrible, terrible tragedy,” Descant said.

Even when summer school starts on June 7, they need a first-responder mentality. News crews still lined the streets, many now looking for police to control the shooting. Politicians held a press conference. Police teams from across Texas patrolled the city. The news is still there almost every day, reopening the wound.

For many, Descant said, the process of “reliving” the shooting took weeks.

Take care of the caretaker

In those first weeks, she said, communities in schools made their first pivots. Even as seasoned professionals, they didn’t fully anticipate how much secondary trauma the staff would absorb, hear the stories, immerse themselves in the grieving community. They already knew it was important to rotate teams each week, giving employees a chance to see their families, rest and process.

But even a week would be too long for employees to postpone attending to their own emotional well-being. As people shared stories of fear and loss they were experiencing trauma second-hand, and staff began to feel overwhelmed and overwhelmed.

They quickly realized they needed their own emotional and mental health check-ins, focusing on the impact each counselor was experiencing.

“You have to prioritize caretaker care,” Weaver said, “it’s not an option.”

Martinez admits she was the one who needed clear instructions to walk away. “Some of us don’t know when to stop and we need to be told,” she said. “You are grieving with the community.”

Suffering is chronic. There should be help

Because they had to rotate, Weaver was clear with staff that they needed to connect Uvalde residents to the communities in the schools as an organization, not to a specific staff person. More than that, they wanted to associate the school with safety, support and care for students – a tall order in the face of senseless tragedy.

“It was about creating a safe space in a large environment where safety and security were under attack,” said Kim Sayers, clinical project director for Communities in Schools in San Antonio.

The Community in Schools rooms at each school, decorated and organized by staff like those on any campus, became a trusted place where a counselor was always ready to talk, to listen when feelings or memories of the day of the shooting came flooding back.

While the shooting seems to eclipse all other concerns now, it’s not the only thing happening in students’ lives, Descant said. They are more than Rob Elementary students or survivors. They are children who will experience success and love along with frustration, disappointment and heartbreak.

“They complicated life before,” she said, “just like all of us.”

The grief, the complications, weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Weaver and school leadership knew it would take more than a summer to heal. So communities are living in schools.

The district signed an agreement with a nonprofit to bring permanent community to school counselors so that whenever grief strikes, and as normal life resumes, Uvalde residents will know where to go when they need someone to listen.

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