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Counselors in Uvalde try to help the community heal

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One month after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead, mental health counseling is a lifeline. But how does a close-knit community heal from a trauma that touched everyone? As NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, the recovery will not be fast or easy.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: In the Uvalde Town Square, you don't have to go far to find emotion. Everyone here was affected by the shooting in some way. Resident Yrma Fuentes, born and raised in Uvalde, explains how it hit home.

YRMA FUENTES: I can't tell you how those parents are feeling. I can tell you how much it hurt me that I go out, and I don't see that little girl practicing baseball anymore.

WAMSLEY: More than a month after the tragic events, the work to process the trauma is underway. Enedelia Soto-Quintanilla is a mental health counselor in Uvalde. She's been talking with affected students since day one, as children were being evacuated from Robb Elementary.

ENEDELIA SOTO-QUINTANILLA: At the beginning, it was mostly pain, shock, confusion. They were trying to make sense - rage.

WAMSLEY: Soto-Quintanilla works for Family Service, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that has provided services in Uvalde for decades. At first, a lot of the children she was meeting with were those who escaped from other classrooms that day.

SOTO-QUINTANILLA: I mean, they heard things. They had to escape. They feared for their lives. They experienced trauma.

WAMSLEY: But in recent weeks, the children who have been coming in are those who were especially close to the victims, including immediate family. And their range of emotions speaks to something still deeper.

SOTO-QUINTANILLA: I don't know. It's just heartbreaking. Numbness, rage, guilt, PTSD, anxiety, all kinds of stuff.

WAMSLEY: Soto-Quintanilla has been meeting with children and adults, but she says for the most part, parents are pushing their kids forward for help, while hanging back themselves.

SOTO-QUINTANILLA: The parents are so concerned about their children that a lot of the time, they're like, please start with my kids. I'll take care of myself next time. So trying to convince the parents in a culture where we're very protective over our children - it's been very challenging.

WAMSLEY: She's been teaching the children some coping mechanisms. One exercise uses a drawing of a heart in pieces. It shows how the heart can contain different feelings at the same time - pain, guilt, even happiness - and that feeling numb is common, too. Soto-Quintanilla says many of the children have been afraid to tell their parents all their feelings because they don't want to make their parents cry.

One challenge is that before the shooting, there weren't many resources or counselors for mental health in these rural communities near the Texas-Mexico border. Alejandra Castro is director of Rural Services with Family Service, which has worked in Uvalde for 22 years. She says that since the shooting, demand for counseling services is off the charts.

ALEJANDRA CASTRO: It is extremely high. We have seen a tremendous increase of individuals that are walking in in crisis mode still.

WAMSLEY: She says there are several agencies now working in Uvalde, but there are still not enough resources, and people don't necessarily know how to access them. Counselors who have been down this road before attest that the road to recovery is a winding one.

Jessica Ward works at Youth & Family Service in Newtown, Conn. She's counseled residents there as they've dealt with the grief of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary 10 years ago. She says in addition to the pain of those who lost family members, there is community loss and community trauma, and a decade later, a range of emotions.

JESSICA WARD: There is a lot of joy and love, also anger and divisiveness. The assumption is everyone will say, oh, I'm sure everyone came together and supported the community. Yes, and sometimes no.

WAMSLEY: The anger of some Uvalde residents has been clear as details of the botched law enforcement response there have trickled out. Based on her experience in Newtown, Ward suspects that at this point, many people in Uvalde are still in what's called the acute stress stage. Some people will start to work through the symptoms related to the event, while others will get stuck.

WARD: Just because there was this traumatic event does not mean everyone in that town is going to be forever traumatized. There is a natural progression of how things work through. And some people will need extra help, but some people will be OK.

WAMSLEY: Along with the pain and the suffering, there will still be love and joy in Uvalde, she says. And so the work continues to try to prepare the students before a new school year starts. Soto-Quintanilla, the counselor in the small south Texas town, says she has one message for the parents there who are still struggling - ask for help.

SOTO-QUINTANILLA: This is a long journey, and we want to be able to be useful. We want to be able to walk this path with them.

WAMSLEY: Past shootings have shown that the path won't be easy, and it will require a community that's hurting to lean on each other to get through it.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.