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Finding hope amidst tragedy in IL

Disaster responders help college town focus on coping with shooting deaths, set plan for future healing

BY BOND BRUNGARD | DeKalb, IL | February 20, 2008

It was late in the afternoon, temperatures were well below freezing and Laurie Kraus, Rick Turner and Helen Robinson were all in the middle of a mission to try and help ease the trauma in the DeKalb community following last week’s Valentine’s Day shooting at Northern Illinois University.

The team was working from Westminster Presbyterian Church, a few blocks from the campus where Steven P. Kazmierczak went into a lecture hall and shot five students to death before killing himself.

Kraus, from the Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, Fl., Turner, from South Carolina and Robinson, from Virginia were all sent by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to help residents start a process of healing.

In northwestern Illinois, DeKalb’s 40,000 residents share their community with 25,000 students, and campus officials suspended classes at the university until Feb. 25 as residents, students and staff start coping with this tragedy.

The PDA team met with some of the faculty and staff earlier this week to help them approach the remainder of the spring semester.

“They have some anxiety and concerns when they step back into their classrooms,” said Kraus.

On Monday, there was a funeral for Catalina Garcia at Our Lady of the Mount Church in Cicero and members of the Pi Kappa Alpha paid their respects to Dan Parmenter, a fraternity brother and a 20-year-old sophomore whose funeral was conducted Tuesday in Hillside.

The PDA team has been leading workshops designed to help with the healing and the beginning of the return to wholeness.

Kraus said the first days of sudden tragedy of this kind are marked with shock and anger.

“A lot of what you’re feeling is perfectly normal and is part of faith’s journey at this moment,” said Kraus, of her assurances to those under her care. “Your faith in the future will not be the one you had before.”

Both Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) have developed specialized ministries to respond to respond to incidents of public violence such as school shootings. Responders from both organizations were also sent to Kirkwood, Missouri, earlier this month when a gunman walked into a public meeting and shot a number of people. Both organizations deployed team members to Virginia Tech last year.

Some of the incidents to which they respond are widely reported in the national press, others are hardly noticed outside a local community. But in each incident, there are commonalities.

Almost nine moths ago, Kraus was sent to Moscow, Idaho, where a gunman sprayed the Latah County’s sheriff’s department with gunfire, killing a police officer and wounding two others. The gunman then fled to the First Presbyterian Church a few blocks away, where he killed himself in the sanctuary.

Kraus was there to help with that trauma, as the sanctuary was isolated during the investigation as part of the crime scene. Like the early stages of recovery now underway in DeKalb, the Moscow congregants had to come together with the shock of the tragedy while moving forward positively with their faith.

“They go together at this stage of the game,” said Kraus. “I would be concerned if they didn’t go together.”

There is also the coping with tragedies like these months later. Kraus returned to Moscow last fall to see how the caregivers were possibly coping with compassion fatigue, and she expects to make a similar visit to the DeKalb community later in May after the semester ends at Northern Illinois University.

“Part of the recovery is trying to reconnect the before with the after in a way that’s meaningful and coherent,” she said.

Nearly 20 faith-based organizations have organized campus ministries at Northern Illinois University. In addition to the assistance provided by national disaster response ministries, many of these organizations are also providing services to students and faculty.

Larry Breeden, pastor of the non-denominational Christ Community Church on campus, said that within hours of the shooting church leaders met with many of the students who normally attend the church.

Then about a dozen students went back to the campus housing areas and met their peers and went through the initial talking stages as they faced the aftermath of the tragedy.

On Friday, Breeden and the students reached out to the foreign students with a coming together dinner because the cafeterias have been closed during the campus shutdown.

During church services Sunday, assurances were offered to help those listening understand a plan for coping with this.

“We can’t answer why evil exists. We have the freedom to chose evil or (God). If we respond with bitterness and revenge, it will eat us up and hurt everybody else,” said Breeden.

As students prepare to return to campus Feb. 25, Breeden and others in the faith-based community will be reaching out to the campus and DeKalb to move forward. Gift and food packages will be distributed to welcome the students back.

Unlike a natural disaster, Kraus said the signs of recovery and deep anguish may not be as evident immediately following a gunman’s rampage.

“It’s not as visible,” she said. “There’s nothing to rebuild.”

Instead, she said, it depends on a community’s resilience to surface after time to help it restore itself.

At Virginia Tech, about 1,000 students gathered Monday for a candlelight vigil in Blacksburg, Va., to mourn the fallen students in DeKalb. Last April, a gunman took the lives of 32 Virginia Tech students before killing himself.

A representative from Virginia Tech was sent to NIU to help, and care packages have been sent to the Illinois campus.

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NIU Web site Memorial Page

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