While much of Colorado has focused on Scott Gessler’s voter suppression, Mike Coffman’s hiding from constituents, and frequent local visits from the President of the United States, as well as the POTUS-wannabe, many Aurorans have been recovering from one of the worst mass shootings in Colorado history. In Aurora, everyone knew someone who knew someone who was in the theater multiplex the night of the shootings, and everyone has a story of some kind.
In the days after the shooting which killed 12 and wounded an additional 58 people, a fund was set up to assist victims. Recently, surviving family members gathered together to make a public statement about distribution of funds collected by the victim’s fund. They expressed frustration and outrage that money collected by the Governor’s fund was not distributed entirely to the victims who were shot, or to their survivors. Family members stated they were under the impression the victim’s fund was to be used to directly compensate them for their suffering. Accusations, innuendo, and finger-pointing followed. Many private donors have questioned if the Governor’s fund was managed appropriately.
Within hours of the shooting, a physical memorial site sprung up across the street from the theater. Since then, up to a thousand people visit the site each day (my friends and I have organized volunteers to make ribbons that were put in jars for guests to take as they paid their respects. We haven’t been able to keep the container filled most days.) People have come from all over the nation, leaving thousands of bouquets of flowers, hundreds of candles, scores of stuffed animals and countless other tokens of their sympathy.
Countless volunteers have stood out in the hot sun for the past six weeks greeting visitors, offering bottled water, removing broken glass, offering on-the-spot counseling and/or prayer, and sometimes throwing out and hauling away trash using their own vehicles. They have also responded to inquiries about donating — instructing potential donors to contribute directly on-line to the Governor’s “Aurora Victim’s Relief Fund”. Six weeks later, hundreds of people still visit the site each day.
Within a couple of days of the tragedy, Governor Hickenlooper’s office was quick to identify a single charity to make memorial giving easy: www.GivingFirst.org, which was set up to work through the Community First Foundation. The main page of the website linked to another page that indicated from the beginning, that the donated money would be distributed among a host of legitimate, recognized community non-profits that would assist in the recovery and healing process.
The pre-approved non-profit organizations include:
Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network
Asia Pacific Development Center of Colorado
Aurora Mental Health Center
Bonfils Blood Center Foundation
Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation
Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance
Community Reach Center
Denver Center for Crime Victims
Greatest Generations Foundation
Jefferson Center for Mental Health
Luthern Family Services Rocky Mountains
Maria Droste Counseling Center
Mental Health America of Colorado
Metro Crisis Services, Inc.
YMCA of Metropolitan Denver
In addition to the Governor’s fund, some individuals have raised money for specific families who were directly affected through private memorial funds, usually communicated via private memorial services. Several of the victims were single parents raising children, for example.
As an Aurora-area resident who spent many volunteer days going to memorial services, making ribbons, directing donations and consoling those who grieve, I am saddened by the criticism of the Governor about this fund. Although family members are entitled to the expression of their deep pain and anger, and no one can understand fully the depths of their grief, they need to remember there were countless victims of the Aurora shooting. Thousands of victims have been emotionally impacted by the tragedy, and they need assistance, as well. The impact of the massacre rippled out across an entire community, and across the Denver metro area — not just in Aurora.
The night the shooting occurred, there were hundreds of people in the theater multiplex. Many were high school and college students. Although a dozen individuals were murdered, 58 more were injured. Some of the injured are still in area hospitals today.
In addition to more than 70 people who were shot at by the gunmen, hundreds more escaped the shootings, some suffering minor injuries running out of the building (my son’s friend got banged up and broke a toe hopping over seats while while outrunning the gunfire, for example). Still others were in adjacent theaters, also running to save their lives. Thousands of parents and family members who later heard what happened at the multiplex that evening were traumatized by the stories, thinking, “I could have lost my loved one”. Thousands of Aurora residents who live in the apartments and neighborhoods nearby were plagued by the notion, “I frequent that theater but chose not to go there that evening. It could have been me.”
Dozens of first responders — police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, EMTs, and dispatchers witnessed a horror they will never forget. Memories of the first calls to 911, the screams of the movie patrons, the carnage at the scene, and the shortage of ambulances to transport the bleeding and wounded fast enough, will haunt them forever.
Doctors, nurses, medical technicians and support staff who were on duty or called in to assist the injured that night also have stories of how the shooting affected them. Crisis counselors, members of the clergy and Red Cross volunteers worked around the clock in those early days to identify, comfort, console and support family members and friends of the victims. Many are still doing so today.
Teachers and administrators in Aurora schools where student victims attended responded to the after-shocks of the emotional trauma caused by the shooting. Students who were classmates with victims did not have to know someone well to be frightened about going out in public places. Church friends, neighbors, coworkers, customers, and many other people who knew victims personally have also suffered.
Coloradans who were already at risk for depression were at greater risk after the shooting — questioning the safety of their community and wondering if the tragedy indicated a frightening trend. Hundreds of Columbine survivors — many of whom live merely twenty miles from the shooting — were re-traumatized, remembering similar events from just over a decade ago.
Although a dozen people were murdered the night of July 20th, and dozens more sustained serious physical injuries, there were tens of thousands of victims of the Aurora shooting who sustained emotional trauma. Emotional trauma is no less devastating than physical trauma, and often, more so. Post-traumatic stress syndrome can permanently affect the quality and length of a person’s life.
My heart goes out to the families who lost a loved one at the theatre the night of the shooting. No one can put a price on their suffering, and no amount of money in the world can bring back their friend or family member. The depths of their pain and grief cannot be imagined by anyone else, no matter how much we try.
In their grief, they should remember others grieve with them, and the entire community has suffered as well. The entire community has pulled together to try to help. As a community member who has spent many hours at the memorial site, I can attest that the potential donors I spoke with understood the proceeds given to the fund would be going to ease the emotional trauma, as well as the unpaid medical bills– all of the victims, not just those who suffered physical injury or death.
Governor Hickenlooper showed strong leadership to create a memorial fund, and to dedicate the proceeds to healing an entire community. Healing from the Aurora shooting tragedy will take decades, and caring for both the physical and emotional needs of the community at large is money well-spent.