Three months after the tragedy in Uvalde, this is how these families are coping
Alexandria "Lexi" Aniyah Rubio was looking forward to playing volleyball when she got to junior high. She dreamed of going to law school one day, and she loved astrology, butterflies, and the color yellow.
These elements of Lexi's personality now surround a freshly painted portrait of her on the side of a cream-colored building in downtown Uvalde, TX. The building faces the parking lot where Lexi's mom, Kimberly Rubio, used to park for work. She still passes it regularly when she goes out for a run.
"It'll be a place where I can remember her, but it'll be a happy place, not like the other places in town," Kimberly says. Lexi's dreams and aspirations are captured in this mural because she didn't have the chance to make it to law school, or even junior high.
She was finishing fourth grade when she was killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in May. She was one of the 19 children and two teachers killed that day – victims who are now also being memorialized in murals like Lexi's. Now, three months after the shooting, families of victims and survivors are grappling with its consequences and the decision to send kids back to school for the first time since the tragedy.
Kimberly, along with her husband, Felix Rubio, are trying to cope with their loss by keeping the memory of their 10-year-old alive. They describe her as hardworking and ambitious.
"Lexi was a quiet child, shy, smart, appreciative of life and anything that comes her way," Felix says. "Her athletic ability, we were just seeing what was coming about from her."
Lexi played softball and basketball, and had tried soccer earlier on. She was also interested in politics even at her young age, according to Kimberly.
And since the shooting, her parents have turned to activism.
Activism in the face of loss
This summer, Kimberly and Felix rallied in Washington, D.C. with survivors and families from Highland Park, Ill. – where seven people were killed and dozens were injured during a July 4th parade shooting – and have met with lawmakers to call for a federal ban on assault-style weapons.
The Rubios also testified before Congress shortly after the shooting on measures to prevent gun violence, and in their home state, they marched to the capitol in Austin last month during a rally organized by March for Our Lives.
"It's been difficult because we don't even want to get out of bed some days," Kimberly says. "But it's also necessary, and I know that we would love to say that it isn't political, but it is. That's our country. So we need change and that's just the way you go about it."
Besides a federal ban on assault-style rifles — just like the one that killed their daughter — the Rubios are asking state lawmakers to raise the minimum age for those seeking such weapons, from 18 years to 21.
"I've heard a few elected officials on board with that. We'll see, I guess," Kimberly says.
For Kimberly, being on the frontlines of activism is new. She says she much prefers being on the other side of the microphone because she used to work as a journalist for the local paper, the Uvalde Leader-News. Fighting for gun control legislation keeps her busy these days, and often distracts her from the unthinkable grief she and her family have been enduring.
Immediately after the shooting, Kimberly says, she thought about the rest of her kids. "We still have children here that we have to fight for. And then, I just kept thinking of other moms, really. I don't want anybody to feel the way I feel," she says.
For many of the families NPR spoke to in Uvalde, including the Rubios, "closure" doesn't seem feasible at this point. But Kimberly and other community members say understanding exactly what happened on May 24 may bring them one step closer to healing.
There have been calls for transparency around the federal investigation into the shooting at Robb Elementary, and there are several other ongoing investigations. District Attorney Christina Mitchell told NPR, "I can see where they see, as a community, there's a lack of transparency."
"It's going to take us a long time to heal," she says. "It's going to take us a long time to figure out what went wrong, individually, the agencies, the school, the community ... but it will get done."
For the Rubios, the pending autopsy report is also essential for a full understanding of what happened to their daughter. "That's a priority for us," Kimberly says. "That has answers: did she pass immediately? Did she suffer?"
And the Rubios want the world to remember their Lexi.
"The only way she lives is through us ... I want people to know what happened here and to join us so that it doesn't happen in their community," Kimberly says.
Preparing for a new school year after tragedy
Along with their loss, Kimberly and Felix have grappled with the same decision as other parents in Uvalde: sending their children back to classes after the tragic ending of the last school year.
For now, their children are going back to the classrooms. Their youngest son was at Robb Elementary the day of the shooting, and they had debated whether or not to send him back to school in person. They ultimately decided to try it out but have enrolled him in virtual school as a back-up option.
"I think it means something to them to kind of go back to their routine, to see their friends," Kimberly says. "We want what's best for them, so if that's what they feel is best, we're behind them and just also pushing for security; making sure that they're safe."
Safety is top of mind for many parents in town, and the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District has responded to the shooting with some security upgrades: putting up 8-foot fences around each campus, adding 500 security cameras, and spreading 33 Texas State troopers across campuses.
But Kimberly says these changes aren't enough for her to feel completely safe sending her kids back. Even a heavy police presence on campuses is not enough, she says, because even when hundreds of police officers responded to the shooting on May 24, more than an hour passed before the gunman was confronted.
"I don't think we'll ever feel comfortable with our kids being anywhere that isn't inside my home," Kimberly says. "I think about that a lot, because with school right now, but they'll go off to parades, concerts, a grocery store; where are they safe?"
The Rubios have even moved to a new house after the shooting, and safety became a priority when choosing the location. Their new home is near the junior and high schools.
"All of our kids will eventually be in this area, so if something ever happens again, we thought, 'Well, they can run home,'" Kimberly says.
Returning to school after witnessing, and surviving, the shooting
Oscar and Jessica Orona had to start reckoning with sending their 10-year old son, Noah, to school weeks ago because they opted for a private school that has been in session since mid-August. Noah was in one of the classrooms that was massacred at Robb Elementary when he was shot. In addition to his ongoing physical recovery, his parents say he isn't the same boy they dropped off that May morning at school.
"We kind of take everything one day at a time. We make tentative plans, because we're not sure how he's going to be feeling or if something is going to trigger him that day," Oscar says.
Even the simplest changes to their lives are telling. Jessica and Oscar say they used to take showers around the same time at night, but now, Noah prefers if they take turns so he can be with at least one parent at all times he's home.
Noah is going to Sacred Heart Catholic School this year, thanks to a scholarship awarded to 30 students who were impacted by the shooting at Robb Elementary. "He feels safe there, they were the first school that embraced enhanced security," Oscar says. Sacred Heart's principal, Joseph Olan, told NPR that the school was in the process of replacing windows and doors with ballistic grade materials, door locks are being upgraded, and new cameras have already been installed.
For the Oronas, the relatively smaller class sizes at Sacred Heart is a selling point. "He'll get more attention, which I think he's going to need. And I think he's going to do well. At least that's what our hopes are," Oscar says. The Oronas are eager to see how Noah will do in a new school environment as the year progresses. But they worry that loud sounds, or simply being in a school environment, could remind him of what happened on May 24.
Oscar says that some counselors have mentioned the possibility of Noah living with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. After all, Noah has endured unthinkable trauma: in addition to being shot, he was forced to lay on his classroom floor for more than an hour among his slain teachers and classmates. "I can't even begin to imagine that myself, much less a 10-year-old having to go through that," his father says.
Kayla Davis, a counselor with the newly established Uvalde branch of the Children's Bereavement Center, told NPR she's hearing similar concerns from children who survived the shooting, and their family members.
"Going back to school, fire drills, lockdown drills — anything that can remind them of what happened can put them back in that survival state," she says.
Uvalde, which is near the U.S. border with Mexico, also has a long history of car chases and school drills related to heavy police activity in the area. In her counseling sessions with families affected by shootings, Davis says she even avoids using the word "trigger" because of its association with guns.
Beyond the immediate concerns around how Noah will fare in school, Jessica and Oscar also worry about their son's long-term future. "We're worried if he's going to be able to survive and live on his own. And go off to college or whatever his ideal is," Oscar says.
Alongside a physical and mental recovery, a financial reality
Taking care of Noah now involves multiple doctor's visits, physical therapy, and counseling appointments each month. Though all the recovery-related services Noah receives are local now, for more than two months, the Oronas had to travel about 90 miles to San Antonio for many of them.
Jessica is primarily responsible for taking Noah to appointments and had to cut her work hours to accommodate them. Oscar works fewer hours than before the shooting, too. But they went back to work a week after Noah returned home from the hospital. "Because we know we have to work to pay our bills," Oscar says.
All of this has put a financial strain on Oscar and Jessica as they navigate an already stressful period. "There's a lot of money that has been distributed, donated to assist us and to assist the deceased. And we don't see a lot of that because there's a bureaucracy that we have to deal with," Oscar says.
The funds available to families of victims and survivors involve an often-dizzying web of bureaucracy. Several people who spoke to NPR expressed confusion about how to access the various funds overseen by state and local governments.
When NPR asked Uvalde's City Manager, Vince DiPiazza, about the bureaucracy families say they are facing, he suggested they should turn to non-governmental organizations for more immediate help. "For instance, the ministerial Alliance, the volunteer fire department, the American Legion," are some of the organizations DiPiazza says have been "able to more quickly turn the money around" than government-run funds.
The Oronas are grateful to the donations that have been pouring in from private donors to Uvalde. Oscar's daughter also set up a GoFundMe page for their family in the wake of the shooting, but they plan to leave that money untouched until Noah is older. "That's our base-building for when he gets to be 18, 19."
'They say we're the lucky ones. We don't feel lucky'
When speaking of the shooting, Oscar's eyes occasionally well up and his voice breaks, but Jessica says she tries not to show too much emotion. "We have to be strong for him," she says, gesturing to Noah sitting nearby, playing his Nintendo Switch.
The Oronas say that one of the hardest parts of their new reality is guilt. They have acquaintances, friends, and even relatives who lost loved ones on May 24, including Lexi Rubio's family (Oscar is Felix Rubio's uncle). Both Oscar and Jessica emphasized never wanting to take attention away from families of victims. Oscar says, "We were guilty because our son survived amidst all this carnage and everything. We were asking ourselves, 'Why? How did our son survive?'"
Jessica says their faith in God has been fundamental in their coping process. But they battle certain perceptions. "I think what a lot of people don't realize is that they say that we're the lucky ones. We don't feel lucky," Oscar says. "We want him to grow up and have a healthy, normal life, [but] we also have to prepare that maybe that's not going to happen."
The Oronas say they are trying to focus on moving forward from what happened to their community and to their son. They do that not only by advocating for Noah, but by helping foster the parts of him that they still very much recognize and love. "He is a funny kid, always trying to make us laugh. A smart aleck sometimes," says Jessica. "He loves Pokemon. He loves to draw and paint. So I think all of that, the way he used to be, will be one day. Because we're not going to let this rule our lives. We're going to go forward and overcome."
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