Uvalde, Texas – Carlos Hernandez enjoys cooking, especially when he gets to do it for the people he loves. But on Tuesday, for the first time in his life, he wasn’t able to fire up the grill.
“There’s no possible way I can open my kitchen with a broken heart and have fun doing it,” he wrote on Facebook. Hours earlier a gunman had walked into Robb Elementary School, just one mile from his restaurant, and brutally massacred 19 children and two teachers in an unfathomable act of evil.
It left Hernandez shaken, briefly paralyzed.
But two days later, out of resolve and desperation, he put on an apron and got to work. He decided that now, more than ever, Uvalde needed his comfort food.
Within hours, Hernandez had given away more than 60 family-sized platters of fried fish, creamy mac and cheese, and other Texas favorites to bereaved community members too distraught to cook themselves.
In between filling plates, Hernandez took time to hold, grieve, and listen to neighbors as they unloaded days of pent up emotions and stress. Many, shattered by the violence, cried, ate and then cried again.
To uplift passersby, he even had positive and unifying messages written on his restaurant windows.
“It’s a real tough situation, I’m just trying to show the kids that they do have us as their backbone and a support system,” he told CNN. “We always provide, whether there is an incident or no incident.”
Hernandez is just one of many people rallying under the banner of “Uvalde Strong” to help soothe another US community shattered by the scourge of gun violence. In the past week, hundreds of people, from near and far, have posted up in the city’s center to volunteer services and offer other acts of kindness.
“Showing the families we care is what we do,” Hernandez said, before admitting he doesn’t know if the community will ever fully heal. For now, though, he and others are committed to helping Uvalde grieve and endure.
‘It makes you think about your own kids’
For Patrick Johnson, traveling to Uvalde is as much an act of service as it is survival. Upon hearing about the slaughter, he was so overcome with grief that he couldn’t go about his day.
“I immediately broke down and wept,” Johnson, 58, told CNN. “I’m not even from this community but I’m hurting. It makes you think about your own kids. It makes you realize it could’ve been you mourning your children.”
Johnson packed his car and drove more than seven hours from Harleton, Texas, to Uvalde. His first stop in town was the Walmart, where he filled his trunk with children’s toys before heading to the town square.
For three days, Johnson sat in the hot Texas sun displaying a table crowded with stuffed animals, miniature trucks, frisbees and soccer balls. He invited children passing by to choose any toy they like, a simple gift from a stranger with a big heart. Every time the table emptied, he sprinted to Walmart to restock.
“When you lose something, especially as a child, you need something else to hold onto,” he said. “It brings joy to the kids, so it brings joy to me.”
“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions. I was giving out toys and a little girl wanted a big white puppy I had, she just lit up. I told her I’d race her for the toy, and I let her win. She got the toy puppy and the way she held onto it … she hugged me and said thank you and how she was so happy. That’s why I’m here.”
It isn’t the first time Johnson has offered support to a Texas community reeling from gun violence. He drove to Sutherland Springs in 2017 and Santa Fe in 2018 to provide care and assistance following mass shootings there.
Repeated tragedies have left Johnson emotionally exhausted, but he says Uvalde is where he needs to be right now.
“Especially in Texas, we don’t wait on the government to get things done, we help our own people,” he said, before encouraging others to join the effort.
“There’s a lot of ways to be a blessing to people.”
A refuge for grieving families
Before the shooting, El Progreso Memorial Library was simply a place to read and borrow books. It’s since transformed into a space for healing.
“We want our building to be a safe space, a refuge that is a quiet, calm and cool haven,” Mendell Morgan, the library’s director, told CNN.
A day after the tragedy, the library welcomed community members with a selection of books and other resources on grief and mourning, as well as hope, inspiration and guidance. It also held “Story Time with Miss Martha,” where librarian Martha Carreon read, sang and giggled along with local children.
Morgan says he wants El Progreso to play an active role in healing for Uvalde’s children and adults. In the coming days and weeks, the library will host psychologists, massage therapy practitioners, pianists, magicians and artists to share their talents with the community.
“This is a small, rural town with a strong Hispanic flavor. Family is key in this culture so the heinous act has impacted an enormous number of people in Uvalde and far beyond,” he said.
To ensure support continues, his team established the Los Angelitos de Robb Memorial Book Fund. Donations, which have already begun pouring in from across the US, will be used to purchase books, games, puzzles and fund programs that will help put families on a path toward healing, Morgan said.
“We are still in shock,” he said. “First, time is needed to allow all of us to recover from the shock, face the reality of the aftermath, and find positive ways to move forward.”
“This is a strong community where we have true care and concern for one another,” Morgan added. “Many if not most here hold fast to their faith believing in God, that good is stronger than evil and light is stronger than dark.”
‘We’ll stay as long as we’re needed’
For seven years, Bonnie Fear has traveled with Lutheran Church Charities across the US offering comfort to survivors of tragedy in the form of quality time with emotional support dogs.
This week, the crisis response coordinator and her team of handlers are in Uvalde with eight fluffy golden retrievers: Abner, Cubby, Devorah, Elijah, Gabriel, Joy, Miriam and Triton.
Together, they sit in the town square tempting adults and children alike to wander over and play. In fact, the dogs wear blue vests that read “please pet me.”
“A lot of times after something like this people don’t want to talk to a human,” Fear told CNN. “After traumatic events people don’t want to deal with people, sometimes they just want that thing that they can touch, talk to without being judged, and it’s pretty much that simple.”
“They show unconditional love,” she added, pointing to the dogs.
There are signs of grief all over the town square. One woman kneels in front of a cross and cries, trembling so hard she struggles to catch her breath. On the bench behind her a family of three sit together reciting a prayer.
The air is heavy with sadness, and the children feel it – that is until they see the dogs. Suddenly their faces light up with smiles.
One little girl sits in the grass and hugs Miriam, an excitable, floppy eared princess who loves to be cuddled. When she pulls away, tears are seen streaming down her face. But as Miriam comes in for a kiss, she giggles. Her mother looks on fighting to hold back tears of her own.
“That’s why we’re here, to help people express their feelings,” Fear said.
Early Saturday, Fear and her team attended a private event where families directly impacted by the shooting gathered to grieve.
“You could tell a lot of the kids weren’t ready to talk yet. They would walk up to a dog pretty sad and confused,” she said. “But by the time they were done with that dog, they were hugging and smiling and even talking to the dog.”
Parents became overwhelmed with emotion when they saw their children interact with the animals, Fear said. For the first time in days their kids were smiling again.
At one point there was so much laughter coming from the area that officials became worried and came over to check what was happening, she said.
“It was our group with our dogs and kids,” Fear said. “I won’t say they were happy exactly, but they were enjoying the moment of forgetting about the horror.”
The process of grieving and healing will take a very long time, Fear said. For many, it has yet to begin.
“We will be back. In crisis like these, the healing doesn’t happen in four or five days. We’ll bring more dogs and we’ll stay as long as we’re needed.”