Sisters help Uvalde move from trauma to trust

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Children make butterflies for an art project with Sister Theresa Jones, F.M.A.

Children make butterflies for an art project with Sister Theresa Jones, F.M.A. The sisters’ approach was to provide a chance for summer camp fun to let the children relax and slowly begin to process and pray about the losses they have experienced. 


PRIOR TO MAY 24, 2022, when a lone gunman massacred 21 people at Robb Elementary School, most of the country had never heard of Uvalde, Texas. Despite living only a few hours away, Sister Regina Hlavac, D.C. also had not. Two days prior to the mass killing she drove through the small town on her way to and from a retreat in Del Rio, Texas. She commented to another sister in the car, “This is such a quaint, beautiful, and peaceful town that I’ll have to return to visit.” That return happened sooner than expected.

Once Uvalde was thrust into the national spotlight and it was apparent that the town’s loss was beyond measure, Hlavac felt impelled to return to Uvalde and serve among the people. “Uvalde is in my backyard. I just knew I had to do something! I wasn’t exactly sure what it was I was meant to do or be for the people there, but I knew I had to do and be something.”

As she prayed about how best to respond, the Holy Spirit moved quickly and Hlavac received an invitation from Catholic Extension to serve at a summer camp for students from Robb Elementary. The goal of the summer camp was to offer the children and their families hope, love, and support. She felt like this was a direct invitation from God, a way to respond to the longing in her heart to be present to the Uvalde community after the tragedy.

Healing takes many forms

Camp I-CAN served rising third, fourth, and fifth graders from Robb Elementary. I-CAN stands for “inner strength, commitment, awareness, and networking.” Recognizing that healing from trauma takes many forms, the sisters and volunteers artfully weaved in spiritual activities that allowed students to pray and share their feelings with games like table tennis, air hockey, cornhole, and arts and crafts. Twenty-five students from Robb Elementary attended the four-day camp held in July of 2022. The sisters worked to give the children a sense of normalcy. Of course, after a major tragedy, normalcy is often difficult to obtain.

As is common in religious life today, this ministry was inter-congregational. Hlavac was one of 13 sisters who responded to the call to serve at Camp I-CAN. The sisters represented eight different communities, including the Society of St. Teresa of Jesus, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Brigidine Sisters, Comboni Missionary Sisters, Sisters of St. Francis of Penance, Sisters of Christian Charity, Siervas del Divino Rostro (Servants of the Divine Face), and the Daughters of Charity, and traveled from Michigan, California, San Antonio, and Uvalde to minister for that week. Together, the sisters formed their own community. They began each day with shared prayer and supported one another as they built community with the students and volunteers.

The camp was a testament to the power and transformation that comes from prayer, community, and fun. During the first days of Camp I-CAN, Hlavac recalls that some of the children were reserved and unwilling to let their parents leave for the day. Hlavac tells the story of a young boy who asked to have his mother stay with him on the first day. He would not accept a camp T-shirt. “The next day, he said, “I’ll take one of those T-shirts, and Mom, you can go home now.” Something Hlavac wants people to know about the campers: They showed resilience and an ability to move from trauma to trust.

Build community, build strength

The community-building didn’t stop with the children. The sisters had opportunities to form bonds with the children’s parents and other family members who joined their campers each day for lunch and supper. The adults also needed support, a listening ear, and a loving heart because they, too, experienced heart-wrenching loss. In fact, the entire town was grieving.

“I remember watching an artist painting murals of the victims,” says Hlavac. “One woman came day after day as the artist worked on a particular portrait. When the artist finished, the woman just sobbed. It was a portrait of her child.”

The stories of sorrow and healing continue. Several sisters on the original ministry team continued to visit for weekend activities and outreach. Hlavac volunteers in the third-grade classroom of Sacred Heart School, where a number of children from Robb Elementary are now students, thanks to scholarships given by Catholic Extension.

About six months after the shooting, sisters put on a retreat for parents and grandparents and sponsored activities for their children to enable the adults to attend. Among the parents, says Hlavac, “There were a lot of tears but a lot of hope.” She emphasizes that point: “We and they gave each other hope. That was the main thrust of it all.”

Everyone has been affected by the tragedy that happened on that beautiful spring day. But Hlavac is quick to point out that the healers became healed as well to transform tragedy to joy, hate to love—that was the gift children of Uvalde shared with the world. “We should be the ones thanking the families,” says Hlavac, “for we came to be the face of Christ for others in their pain and we ended up seeing the face of Christ in the faith, hope, and love of the children of Uvalde.” 

VISION editors also contributed to this story.

Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “In search of healing, one story at a time.”


A group views a mural of one of the children who died during the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas in May 2022. The child’s mother receives a hug.
A group views a mural of one of the children who died during the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas in May 2022. The child’s mother receives a hug. (Photo courtesy of Sister Regina Hlavac, D.C.)

Sister Dolores Avila, S.T.J. leads children in an activity.
Sister Dolores Avila, S.T.J. leads the children in an activity. 
 
Sisters stand in prayer in front of the flowers and other tributes piled up in the Robb Elementary schoolyard.
The sisters stand in prayer in front of the flowers and othr tributes piled up in the Robb Elementary schoolyard. 
 
Sister Suzanne Miller, F.M.A. and volunteer Susan Trevino join the children’s games with a rousing round of Ping-Pong.
Sister Suzanne Miller, F.M.A. and volunteer Susan Trevino join the children’s games with a rousing round of Ping-Pong.
 
Sister Dolores Avila, S.T.J. and Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall stand before murals of the 19 children and two adults killed by the Uvalde gunman.
Sister Dolores Avila, S.T.J. and Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall stand before murals of the 19 children and two adults killed by the Uvalde gunman.
 
Robb Elementary school sign surrounded by grave markers
Any normal school sign is not surrounded by grave markers, but Robb Elementary and the town of Uvalde was convulsed in pain after 21 people were shot to death on what should have been an ordinary day in May winding down the 2021-22 school year.
 
Parents and other family members were invited to share lunches during the camp, allowing the sisters to lend a listening ear to affected adults and siblings. They also joined the camp each evening for supper.
Parents and other family members were invited to share lunches during the camp, allowing the sisters to lend a listening ear to affected adults and siblings. They also joined the camp each evening for supper.
Sister Eilis McCulloh, H.M. author photo
Sister Eilis McCulloh, H.M. is a Sister of the Humility of Mary and currently serves as the grassroots education and organizing specialist at NETWORK Lobby.

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