In Uvalde one month later, moments of silence, yet so much left to say

There is a lot to talk about in Uvalde, and beyond: Why the police waited so long. Why there aren't more answers. Sometimes, though, it's difficult to talk about it at all.

Andrea Ball

UVALDE, Texas – Nancy Musquiz aims the spray glue, then presses down the batting. Her quilting partner, Carol Wilson, pulls from the other side. Their hands slide across the fabric with practiced rhythm. Pat, pat. Smooth, smooth. No lumps or bumps in this quilt.

Nearby, Susan Stone laughs as her ironing table rolls away, its wheels rumbling across the floor. 

They don’t talk about it here, the nearly unspeakable thing. Mostly, they chat about who they saw at the grocery store. The friend who’s been sick. The rain that didn’t fall these past few weeks. 

Sometimes, it seems people can hardly talk about it, here in this city where the live oaks grow. 

A memorial in the town square of Uvalde, Texas, for those killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022.

Sometimes, when they talk about it, they do it in pieces. Did you see the column in the Uvalde Leader News? It’s the one about how, time was, nobody had heard of Uvalde. Now it’s a place nobody has to explain. 

Of course, nobody can truly explain. At the end of May, just before the last day of school, a man with a semi-automatic rifle and armloads of ammunition walked onto the grounds of Robb Elementary and opened fire. He walked into the school building, then into a classroom and opened fire again. 

He kept shooting until two teachers and 19 students in the fourth grade classroom – 19 little kids who loved to draw, who wore green sneakers, who made the honor roll, who made coffee in the mornings for their grandparents – were dead. 

'They're so young': A grandfather in Uvalde mourns

Investigators say a contingent of heavily armed and armored police amassed that day – in the hall outside the classroom, under the oak trees outside the school walls – yet they waited, and waited, for more than an hour, even as the gunman on the other side of the door kept firing. 

By the time police entered the classroom and killed the shooter, Uvalde had become the home of the deadliest school shooting in a decade. 

There is a lot to talk about in Uvalde, and beyond. At the school board meeting, parents ask what the frightened students were thinking for 77 minutes inside bloody classrooms. They ask why the school district’s police chief hasn't been fired and why he's still on the city council. 

In Austin – home of the governor who first heralded the police for saving lives by “running toward gunfire,” then said he was “livid” about being “misled” – state senators are asking questions, and the state’s Department of Public Safety chief blasted the local response as “an abject failure.” 

From the city offices in Uvalde, the mayor issued fiery statements asserting, “There is no coverup,” blasting the hearings in Austin as a “farce,” pointing out that DPS officers were there, too, in that hallway, outside the classroom door, while the shooter was on the other side. There is a lot to talk about in Uvalde. 

It’s the end of June, four weeks after the day. The national and international reporters that clogged Old Carrizo Road are gone. In the church vestibules and on the sidewalks, the TV lights have gone dark. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and the Duchess of Sussex have departed. The pink crosses erected across town are fraying, the flowers in the makeshift memorials brown and dead. The funerals are over. 

Inside a room at the Herby Ham Activity Center in Uvalde, Texas,  Nancy Musquiz from the non-profit group Quilts of Grace works on making quilts that will be given to children, teens and families from the school shooting in Uvalde. A gunman killed 19 students and two teachers there in May.

And the women hunched over tables in the quilting room at Herby Ham Activity Center are not here to talk about it. 

They trim fabric, tear tape and straighten strips of striped cloth. 

An iron hisses as it spits out steam. Orange-handled scissors clunk against a plastic table. Spray glue wafts into the soft white batting that will make the quilt thicker.

The women's nonprofit group, Quilts of Grace, has made more than 1,400 blankets since 2018, mostly for youth living with trauma. These quilts are extra special. These will go to long-term counseling programs helping children, teens and families affected by the tragedy.

People across the country have sent blankets and fabric to Quilts of Grace. Some are soft and thin, others stiff and bulky. The Uvalde quilters dole them out as fast as they can, while making their own, says Diana Bonnet, who founded the group.

Some people have sent as many as 50. Others simply sent one. 

Inside a room at the Herby Ham Activity Center in Uvalde, Texas,  Nancy Musquiz from the non-profit group Quilts of Grace works on making quilts that will be given to children, teens and families from the school shooting in Uvalde. A gunman killed 19 students and two teachers there in May.

“I know it’s not much,” a Pennsylvania woman in her 80s told Diana. That’s just fine, Diana answered. It’s one quilt at a time. 

The blankets have come from Montana, Tennessee, Oregon, Colorado, Connecticut, all over. Donors saw the call for quilts on Facebook, blogs, all across the internet, and they answered. Because everyone knows Uvalde now. 

Which words to say 

Uvalde’s roots began with its trees. The first town site was called Encina, named for the live oaks that were growing here before statehood, before the Republic of Texas, before the city took its new name from the Mexican governor Juan de Ugalde. They were growing before the first Spanish explorers, probably before the first human beings forded the Leona River. 

The river still runs, trickling through a city park, past the back side of the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center on Main Street. That first unspeakable day, clouds gathered all afternoon as the families gathered at the civic center. They waited, one by one, for officials inside to give them the worst possible news. Finally, in the night, the skies opened, and the river rose. 

A heart-shaped balloon flies at a memorial site outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Monday, May 30

Uvalde has been called the city of trees as well as the Honey Capital of the World. On the southern plains known as the Winter Garden of Texas, beekeepers prospered, pollinating a year-round crop. 

Uvalde is a place where the high school team plays football at the Honey Bowl Stadium. Where the aviation museum features World War II aircraft in a hangar from the old air base. Where the 131-year-old opera house gets 4.5 out of 5 stars on Tripadvisor.

For most people in Uvalde, it’s just home. A place to get doughnuts and cigarettes at the Stripes gas station across from the library, walk the two blocks to the town square, lie in the grass under the trees. 

There is so much to talk about, it’s hard to know what to say.

Mary Beth Fisk talks to them when they come in, the children, the parents or the distant relatives. She’s interim executive director of the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center

“They’re trying to find a reason why,” she says.

People visit the town square on May 28, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas and the memorial with the names of the 19 children and two teachers killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022.

About a week after the incident, the Governor’s Public Safety Office awarded the city $5 million for a new resiliency center to serve as a hub for anything victims, families and community members might need. An engineer was retained to reconfigure the old bank building. If things go right, the site will be ready to open by November, Fisk says.

For now, the center is stationed at the county fairplex, which is out on Highway 90, a bit past the cemeteries, just before the wildlife refuge on the edge of town. 

The center is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., including Saturdays. It's there to do trauma counseling, play therapy, music therapy, group therapy, individual therapy, insurance claims, child care, health services and financial assistance. Some of the counselors are bilingual. 

The center isn't the only place that helps.

Therapy dogs have attached themselves to the summer school programs. A North Texas bodybuilder, the one dressed as Spider-Man, came to host an event at the library with gifts, snow cones, foam bubbles and a bounce house. More than 3,000 people came.  

Fisk says people coming for help are all over the place. Some are still in disbelief. Some are angry. Many are deeply sad.

“There’s overwhelming sadness and depression,” she says. “It’s very, very difficult. Many families may have lost a child or a family member, and they’re trying to figure out ‘How do I get up tomorrow?’ ‘How do I put one foot in front of the other?’”

Fisk has been here before. She is CEO of The Ecumenical Center, a mental health nonprofit in South and Central Texas that has been helping Sutherland Springs since 2017, when a gunman shot 26 people to death at a church. Almost five years later, people are still hurting, she said. Six months ago, someone came in for counseling for the first time.

Audrey Duenas, left, checks on Grant Taylor, right, while he is donating blood during the South Texas Blood and Tissue emergency blood drive at the Herby Ham Activity Center Wednesday, May 25, 2022, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Uvalde.

In Uvalde, officials are starting the process of determining how to distribute millions of dollars in donations sent to the community. 

In Uvalde, people are just trying to keep each other from falling. Relatives have come to help survivors. Businesses host blood drives. Neighbors raise money. 

“I have found this to be a loving community,” Fisk says, “and people care for each other very, very much.” 

The time to speak

It’s a Monday night and the regular school board meeting has moved from the regular boardroom to the auditorium at the high school, across town from Robb Elementary. 

It’s the kind of meeting most people in most school districts will never even attend, much less line up to speak. It’s the kind of meeting that starts with an invocation, before the Pledge of Allegiance, before the Texas pledge, before explaining the regulations for the public comment period: three minutes per person, 15 minutes total. Tonight there will be an exception. 

Tonight, there is a long list of speakers. There is a lot to talk about in Uvalde.

One thing to talk about is the school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo. DPS says he was the incident commander responsible for the collapse of the public safety response. In an interview, he described a number of steps that were then contradicted by the official Senate inquiry.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw shows how an interior door in Robb Elementary School failed to lock securely to the Texas Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans during the hearing at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

“Innocence doesn’t hide. Innocence doesn’t change its story. But innocence did die on May 24 at Robb Elementary,” resident Brett Cross tells the school board.  

Another thing to talk about is the time. The 77 minutes, to be exact, when children were dead or dying. “I want you to think about what they could have been feeling, what they could have been thinking about. ‘Where are my parents? Where’s the police?’ The people that are designed to protect them, the people who are trained to protect them – nowhere to be found,” Jesus Rizo Jr. says.

The board meeting goes on for hours into the night at the high school auditorium. 

In the daytime, in the schools, the children have a different conversation. 

The therapy dogs show up at summer school classes across the district.

German shepherds, golden retrievers, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, poodles, mixed breeds. Four times a week, from 8 a.m. to noon, therapy dogs descend upon the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District.

The children love it, says Linda Porter-Wenzlaff, director of Therapy Animals of San Antonio’s CARE team, which responds to crises.

“The kids do body hugs, they lay on the floor with them, they use them as a pillow,” she says. Her own Shetland sheepdog, Indigo Moon, is more than happy to oblige.

When the CARE team arrived to help shortly after the incident, there was no guarantee it would be back after a few weeks of work. It’s a 160-mile round trip from San Antonio to Uvalde, and the road time, the price of gas and a program staffed by volunteers made long-term care seem like a stretch.

After national media coverage brought attention to the group, a California nonprofit gave the CARE team a $10,000 grant to keep ferrying its dogs to Uvalde’s children. 

The group couldn’t do it alone, Porter-Wenzlaff says, so it paired with PAWS for Service, another therapy dog program out of San Antonio.

Since then, the canines have become a hit with the students, sidling up to their favorites during class for a hug or kiss or a few words. There are no deep conversations with the dogs’ handlers, not here in school, where anyone could hear. Instead, the children make little comments – “Her ears are really small,” “Her fur is really soft” – and sit beside their new animal friends. 

The dog groups printed hundreds of trading cards featuring the canines’ photos, greatest accomplishments, treasured toys and favorite treats. (Indigo Moon is partial to watermelon and vanilla yogurt.) 

The kids call them Dogémon cards, a play on Pokémon.

“It’s so good to see them being children,” Porter-Wenzlaff says.

On these days with the dogs, it seems hardly anyone talks about it, about the thing no one from Uvalde will ever have to explain. 

Kids don’t need a vocabulary with a dog, Porter-Wenzlaff says. They hardly need to talk about anything at all. They can just be. 

In other places, it’s harder. Musquiz, the quilter, sees the constant barrage of news reports on the shooting.

“Some of it has been so heavy that I have to put it down,” she says.

A time for silence 

In the quilting room, the large silver safety pins clatter softly on the table as Musquiz and Wilson prepare to secure the layers of the quilt together.

The Herby Ham Activity Center is quieter these days. In the three weeks after the shooting, the one-story brick building was a hub of barely controlled chaos. The day after the incident, hundreds of people showed up for the center’s blood drive, many waiting in the hot sun for hours for the chance to help. 

This is where the duchess everybody knows as Meghan Markle brought trays of sandwiches from the H-E-B grocery store; where families held funeral receptions; where O’Rourke, the gubernatorial candidate, irked locals when a horde of media came to watch him give blood; where families held receptions after the funerals of their children. 

The talking isn’t over. Soon after the school board meeting, the district confirms that its embattled police chief has been placed on leave. Soon after the Senate hearing, Uvalde’s state senator files a lawsuit against DPS, demanding it release its investigative records.

But at this moment, in the nearly empty Herby Ham center, things have slowed down. The cameras are gone. 

Inside a room at the Herby Ham Activity Center in Uvalde, Texas,  Carol Wilson from the non-profit group Quilts of Grace works on making quilts that will be given to children, teens and families from the school shooting in Uvalde. A gunman killed 19 students and two teachers there in May.

Musquiz and Wilson are hard at work, making quilts for the thing they are not talking about.

They stand on opposite sides of the table, pinning the layers of their quilt. It will take some time, but the glue and the safety pins will keep the fabric together.

In the corner, Stone irons a vibrant piece of beach scene fabric emblazoned with yellow sand, azure waves, houses and a red flag. The colors are joyful and fun, the way kids should feel. Maybe this fabric, this future quilt, can bring them back a sliver of that.

More from USA TODAY

For subscribers:She lost her sense of smell. It almost ended her business

For subscribers:Southern California's great white shark mystery

For subscribers:An electric bike rode into the backcountry. Now there's a nationwide turf war

For subscribers:What Catherine the Great can teach us about the war in Ukraine