Welcome to the Club
STORY BY LEAH MILLIS
Almost two decades separate the traumatic experiences of Michelle Wheeler and Chad Williams, who both survived mass shootings. But as they shared their stories one evening last July, 20 years seemed to evaporate in the crisp Colorado air.
The similarities were too many to count.
The same gripping fear. The loss and devastation that followed. The lasting trauma and overwhelming grief. So many funerals and memorial services.
Michelle Wheeler, 38, escaped the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, when two students killed 12 students and a teacher, thrusting the horror of school shootings into the American consciousness.
Chad Williams, 18, was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when a former student killed 17 students and staff members, including one of Williams’ best friends, on Feb. 14, 2018.
The conversation with Wheeler made him feel less alone, Williams said.
"It felt like my world fell apart last year,” he said. “And just hearing other people's stories and how they came through and bettered themselves after helped make me feel a little bit better about myself.”
There have been dozens of mass shootings in the United States since Columbine.
In the United States from 2000 to 2017 there were 250 active-shooter incidents, resulting in 799 deaths and more than 1,400 people wounded, according to the FBI. But the number of people left to deal with the lasting effects of gun violence is far more difficult to track.
The Rebels Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in 2012, seeks to help survivors and their families learn how to live with the deep-rooted trauma wrought by their experiences.
The group's mission has gained a renewed sense of urgency in the wake of three apparent suicides: the father of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and two teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas who died in March.
Williams and Wheeler met over the summer during the group’s annual gathering.
For one weekend a year, survivors from across the United States meet to learn techniques that help them cope with trauma.
About 50 people gathered in July to share and learn from each other's experiences and take part in activities that include tai chi and yoga classes.
Between these gatherings, participants can connect through the project's private Facebook group and attend monthly support meetings in Colorado. Project volunteers sometimes visit affected communities to share what they have learned through the years and offer peer-to-peer guidance.
Columbine survivor Heather Martin, 37, started The Rebels Project just days after another mass shooting shook her Colorado community.
Martin was driving home from work on July 20, 2012, when screaming sirens sent her heart and mind racing.
"It's OK," she reasoned with herself. "Things are OK. Just drive home. There was probably an accident."
The next morning, she woke to the news that a gunman had killed a dozen people inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
Though Martin tried to avoid learning the details of the massacre, she became overwhelmed by old feelings of grief, anxiety and, above all, helplessness.
A few days later, she received a text from a fellow Columbine survivor.
"What do you think about starting a support group for people who have been through mass shootings?" Jennifer Hammer wrote.
Martin did not hesitate. "I’m in," she replied.
The Rebels Project, named after the Columbine High School mascot, held its first meeting within days.
Dozens of people showed up wanting to help those affected by the Aurora shooting. Many were Columbine survivors. During the meeting, several broke down crying as they told their own stories.
"It became clear that even 13 years after Columbine we still needed help," Martin said.
Five years ago, there were fewer than 20 survivor communities involved in the organization. As of early April, survivors of 60 mass traumas had joined.
To support its growing network, The Rebels Project hosts a public silent auction of donated items and services once a year and has received small grants from local businesses.
But the money quickly runs out.
Organizers hope to broaden the project's reach and bolster its impact by starting local support systems in various U.S. states and creating a network of mental-health professionals who specialize in mass trauma.
But it has proven especially difficult for the group to get state, federal and nonprofit health grants, Martin said. It has been challenging to prove that peer support unsupervised by a mental health professional falls under mental health needs, "though there is lots of research surrounding it," she said.
About 1,000 survivors have found their way to The Rebels Project.
It was a 3 a.m. Google search that led Sherrie Lawson to the group.
Lawson, 45, fled her office as a gunman opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard in the nation's capital on Sept. 16, 2013.
For months after, she was dogged by nightmares and insomnia, and struggled to find support.
"Even a lot of my friends were like, 'It’s been a few months, you should be OK now.'"
But she was not.
Lawson still occasionally struggles with shopping in places that have aisles she can't easily see the exit over. They can remind her of the cubicles in her workplace during the shooting.
She struggled to carry out basic chores like going to the grocery store. She grew anxious in the aisles, unable to see the door over the tall rows of food.
The Rebels Project taught her that it was normal to continue to struggle for months, even years, after what she had gone through.
People affected by events like mass shootings can experience trauma, even if they did not witness the violence firsthand, according to Erika Felix, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied shooting survivors.
“People need to recognize that there’s multiple levels of people affected. It’s not just the people who directly saw something or were directly injured or lost someone that they loved,” Felix said. “It ripples through a community, it shatters a lot of people’s belief about the safety of your community, of the world.”
In early April, nearly 20 years to the day of the Columbine massacre, Martin and two other members from The Rebels Project sat in a park in Parkland with high school students from Stoneman Douglas.
Martin told Ava Steil, 16, and Brianna Jesionowski, 16, that every April she finds herself becoming irritable, weepy, short-tempered. The process of healing is “never really over,” Martin told the girls, who were interviewing The Rebels Project members for the high school newspaper.
"I was barricaded in a room for three hours, and it was geographically close to the library where most of the gunfire happened," Martin recalled.
"We heard everything that happened, but I didn’t see any of it happen. So, for years, I was like ... ‘I should be fine.’ And that’s not the case,” she said.
"Trauma isn’t a competition. You don’t need to compare it to anyone else's. It's your own.”