Uvalde, TX — Carlos Hernandez loves to cook, especially when he does it for the people he loves. But on Tuesday, for the first time in his life, he couldn’t light the grill.
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 offered more than 60 family plates of fried fish, creamy mac and cheese and other Texas favorites to bereaved community members too distraught to cook for themselves.
Between filling plates, Hernandez took time to hold, cry and listen to the neighbors as they unloaded days of pent-up emotions and stress. Many, shaken by the violence, cried, ate and then cried again.
To boost the morale of passers-by, he even had positive and unifying messages written on the windows of his restaurant.
“It’s a really tough situation, I’m just trying to show the kids that they have us as a backbone and a support system,” he told CNN. “We always deliver whether there is an incident or no incident.”
“Showing families we care is what we do,” Hernandez said, before admitting he doesn’t know if the community will ever fully heal. For now, however, he and others are committed to helping Uvalde grieve and endure.
“It makes you think of your own children”
For Patrick Johnson, going to Uvalde is as much an act of service as it is survival. Hearing about the massacre, he was so overwhelmed with grief that he couldn’t go through the day.
“I immediately broke down and cried,” Johnson, 58, told CNN. “I’m not even from this community but it hurts. It makes you think about your own children. It makes you realize you could have mourned your children.”
Johnson packed up his car and drove more than seven hours from Harleton, Texas, to Uvalde. His first stop in town was 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 filled with stuffed animals, toy trucks, Frisbees and soccer balls. He invited passing children to choose the toy they liked, a simple gift from a big-hearted stranger. Every time the table emptied, he rushed to Walmart to restock.
“When you lose something, especially as a kid, you need something else to hold on to,” he said. “It brings joy to children, so it brings joy to me.”
“It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions. I was handing out toys and a little girl wanted a big white puppy that I had, she just turned on. I told her I’d race her for the toy, and I let her win. She got the stuffed puppy and the way she held it…she hugged me and said thank you and how happy she was. C that’s why I’m here.
Repeated tragedies have left Johnson emotionally drained, but he says Uvalde is where he needs to be right now.
“Especially in Texas, we’re not waiting for the government to get things done, we’re helping our own people,” he said, before encouraging others to join the effort.
“There are many ways to be a blessing to people.”
A refuge for grieving families
Before the shooting, the El Progreso Memorial Library was simply a place to read and borrow books. It has since been transformed into a healing space.
“We want our building to be a safe space, a refuge that is a haven of peace, calm and coolness,” Mendell Morgan, director of the library, told CNN.
Morgan says he wants El Progreso to take an active role in healing Uvalde’s children and adults. Over the next few days and weeks, the library will welcome psychologists, massage therapists, pianists, magicians and artists to share their talents with the community.
“It’s a small rural town with a strong Hispanic flavor. Family is key to this culture, so the heinous act has affected huge numbers of people in Uvalde and far beyond,” he said. .
“We are still in shock,” he said. “First, it takes time for all of us to recover from the shock, face the reality of the consequences and find positive ways to move forward.”
“It’s a strong community where we really care about each other,” Morgan added. “Many if not most here hold fast to their faith believing in God, that good is stronger than evil and that light is stronger than darkness.”
“We will stay as long as we need”
This week, the Crisis Response Coordinator and her management team are in Uvalde with eight fluffy golden retrievers: Abner, Cubby, Devorah, Elijah, Gabriel, Joy, Miriam and Triton.
Together they sit in the town square to encourage adults and children to walk around and play. In fact, the dogs wear blue vests that read “please pet me.”
“A lot of times after something like that, 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 about without being judged, and that’s about that simple.”
“They show unconditional love,” she added, pointing to the dogs.
There are signs of grief all over the town square. A woman kneels before a cross and cries, shaking so hard she can barely catch her breath. On the bench behind her, a family of three is seated and recites a prayer.
The air is heavy with sadness and the children feel it, until they see the dogs. Suddenly, their faces light up with smiles.
A little girl sits in the grass and hugs Miriam, an excitable princess with floppy ears who loves to be cuddled. When she pulls away, tears stream down her face. But as Miriam walks in for a kiss, she giggles. Her mother struggles to hold back her own tears.
“That’s why we’re here, to help people express their feelings,” Fear said.
Early Saturday, Fear and his team attended a private event where families directly affected by the shooting gathered to grieve.
“You could tell a lot of the kids weren’t ready to talk yet. They were approaching a dog that was quite sad and confused,” she said. “But by the time they were done with that dog, they were hugging, smiling and even talking to the dog.”
Parents were overwhelmed with emotion when they saw their children interacting with the animals, Fear said. For the first time in days, their children were smiling again.
At one point there was so much laughter in the area that officials became concerned and came to check on what was going on, she said.
“It was our group with our dogs and our kids,” Fear said. “I won’t say exactly that they were happy, but they were enjoying the moment to forget the horror.”
The grieving and healing process will take a very long time, Fear said. For many, this has not yet begun.
“We’ll be back. In a crisis like this, healing doesn’t happen in four or five days. We’ll bring more dogs and stay as long as needed.”