Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Listening to our car radios as we drove into work on the morning of July 20th, the staff of the Carson J Spencer Foundation learned the news that our students and teachers from Rangeview High School and Gateway High School were directly affected by the Aurora shootings. As soon as we got into the office, we went right to Facebook to track down the students with whom we had connections to see if they were okay. For hours we waited for updates and felt optimistic when we heard the instant messaging beeps. Briana, our Junior Achievement Scholarship winner was safe and was also desperately trying to get status updates on her classmates. Kim, our teacher from Rangeview, had been with some of our students that morning receiving an award from 9HealthFair for their FIRE Within project. It was a rollercoaster morning for all of them, and so far she hadn’t yet heard that any of her students had been harmed. Then we talked to Courtney, the teacher from Gateway. Clearly shaken, Courtney let us know that three Gateway had been shot: one in the neck, one in the leg, and one “that didn’t look good.” The last student was A.J. Boik, a recently graduated senior. We learned later, A.J. had died at the theater.

Glued to the newscast all day like the rest of the nation, we grieved for this community. Knowing we had some tools and connections that might be of assistance, we decided we would to see if we could help in some way. Then, serendipitously, a number of pieces came together is just a couple of hours.
I shot off an email to my colleague from Crisis Care Network, “Bob, are you coming to Colorado? We need you.”

Based out of Michigan, Bob VandePol is President of one of the leading crisis service providers in the country. We had recently been selected as Co-Leads of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Workplace Task Force. Bob and I had presented together on a number of occasions on how workplaces can manage the crisis of a suicide, and I knew of his deep passion for and competence to help victims of major crisis incidents. He describes it as a calling.

Bob replied, “You’re not going to believe this, but I already had a trip planned, and I will be arriving on Tuesday. My evening is free.”

Then I reached out to Kim to see what, if anything, might be helpful. I told her that Bob would be in town and that I could help facilitate a candle-lighting ceremony if that fit the needs of the community. Kim reached out and found Reverend Ron Frierson.

“Pastor Ron” had led prayers for the first responders at the large memorial service on Sunday night. I had heard him share his compassionate words as I flew home that night from a speaking engagement in Indianapolis. Watching the small screen on the chair in front of me, tears streamed down my face as I listened to how he honored their service, “You are the first ones on the call and the last ones people think of that went through something. You were chosen to answer the call, and we are grateful you did.”
Pastor Ron was looking to do something for his congregation, and thus, the pieces came together.

Late in the afternoon on Tuesday, August 24th, Bob’s plane touched down and we all made our way over to Pastor Ron’s Heart for the World Church. On my way I stopped at the makeshift memorial just across the street from the Century 16 theaters. There I saw huge mounds of flowers and stuffed animals, thousands of candles, and dozens of signs pleading for peace, love and remembrance. Scores of mourners braved the 100 degree heat and paid their respects to the fallen.

When I found the directions to the Church, I realized that we were just one block away. The church was located in the back of a strip mall, just a few retail spaces gutted out and transformed into a beautiful place of worship. Deep purple flower arrangements and luxurious drapery gave it a sense of elegance. Hand-painted murals in all the children’s rooms, gave it a sense of community. It was clearly a place built out of love.
Pastor Pam (Ron’s wife) met me at the door and walked me back to the office where I met Pastor Ron. Bob had already arrived, and we talked for a few minutes about our children, our work, and our common desire to provide hope and comfort to this traumatized community.

Congregation members started trickling in. Kim came with some students. Neighboring church leaders came to stand in solidarity. Sarah Burgamy, President of the Colorado Psychological Association, arrived and said to me, “Yes, I am here to let people know we are here to provide mental health services if needed, but I am also here for me. I too need a chance to pause, reflect and grieve.”

Pastor Ron welcomed us all. The choir came filed out from the back and sang, clearly moved by the moment, about how God puts his hands on us and about how demons try but do not triumph over us.
I spoke briefly about how “the phoenix hope” helps us revive from ashes and rise and about how when communities pull together they can overcome unimaginable distress.

Bob helped people understand that God has given us gifts to survive this, but we often don’t realize these are gifts. He explained that we are fearfully and wonderfully made to flee, fight or freeze in reaction to life threatening events. Hypervigilance, insomnia, and even digestive problems are all normal responses to abnormal events, and for most, these reactions will pass in time.

Bob also shared with us the story of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, and how he discovered three commonalities among the people who survived that horrible tragedy:
  •  They believed in something bigger than themselves. They had a sense of purpose and a faith that there was something more to come.
  • They had positive coping skills before the tragedy and drew upon those sources of resiliency.
  •  They had healthy and supportive relationships and a community that was a safe place to come together.

Then Rondah Frierson, Pastor Pam and Pastor Ron’s youngest daughter took the podium. Rondah had been a member of our FIRE Within class at Rangeview High School from 2010-2011, and was currently a sophomore in college. A radiant light of optimism and splendor, she moved us all to tears again with her heartfelt ministry.

“Love harder,” she said. “They [the people who died] are looking at us now and telling us that’s what they want us to do. We know these people and we are changed forever; the only way through this is love. With love comes unity, and from unity we have community.”

As the choir’s soul-stirring music began again, we lit our candles – cream-colored tapers with Styrofoam cups to catch the dripping wax – and swayed together. All ages, all races, all faiths, swaying together.
A Pastor from a neighboring church gave the closing prayer, “We stand with you,” he said. “Take back this land.”

We filed out into the reception area and spent time in fellowship together over rice crispy treats and lemonade. We hugged, we shared our experience, and we expressed gratitude for being together.
On the way home, I went to the memorial site again and found Bob there too. With the sun down, the candles glowed more brightly. The wind blew up the dust and threatened to blow them all out, but it could not blow out the spirit of community that is so steadfast here in Aurora.