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Bridging The Gap
The Mass-Shooting Survivor Network
  Tuesday 01 May, 2018
The Mass-Shooting Survivor Network

As Patrick Korellis remembers it, he arrived at the college support group in 2008 and introduced himself to the person standing closest to him, a young woman named Emily Haas. She was a junior at Virginia Tech, majoring in business. Mr. Korellis was a senior at Northern Illinois University, studying meteorology and geography.

They would later swap stories of the stereotypical college variety — about cafeteria food, campus life and their post-graduation plans — but first, Mr. Korellis and Ms. Haas connected over a horrific shared experience.

“So, you were shot too?” she said.

Two months earlier, Mr. Korellis had been in the front row of his oceanography class when a gunman burst into the lecture hall with a shotgun. Mr. Korellis ducked under his desk, waited for a pause between blasts and bolted for the door. He was hit in the back of the head and arm with shotgun pellets but managed to stagger out into the safety of the cold Midwestern winter. When he got to the hospital, he was bleeding and missing a shoe.

Ms. Haas could relate. One year before, she had been in French class when a gunman had walked in and killed the teacher. Ms. Haas huddled under her desk as her classmates were shot, and two bullets grazed her head. The gunman left to terrorize other classrooms but returned several times to kill more students, and then himself. Eleven students died in that small room.

When Mr. Korellis met Ms. Haas, his arm was scarred and the back of his head still hurt to touch, but he remembered that he felt lucky in comparison. At least his shooting took place in the open space of a large auditorium. That felt less claustrophobic — safer somehow — than what Ms. Haas and her classmates had endured.

The conversation between Mr. Korellis and Ms. Haas, which took place a decade ago, was the result of a specific kind of outreach: survivors reaching out to other survivors. More and more, those who have lived through mass shootings — which were defined by the Obama administration in 2013 as a shooting with three or more deaths — are connecting with new survivors to create support groups between communities.

In this case, Virginia Tech students heard about the shooting at Northern Illinois University, waited a few days and then reached out with cards and phone calls. Their message was simple: We’ve been through it, too. And we’re here to talk.

“We didn’t know who else to talk to,” said Mr. Korellis, 32, now a geographic information systems project manager for Walgreens. “But hearing about a different shooting from their perspective helped. It was like, ‘Tell me how the next year is going to be, what am I going to be dealing with?’”

Within the next few weeks, Mr. Korellis and nine other injured classmates traveled to Blacksburg, Va., for a memorial service that marked a year since the Virginia Tech shooting. On the morning of the service, students from both schools met, paired up and traded tips for dealing with the frustrations and worries they had in the aftermath of their separate traumas.

The network of gun-violence support groups across the country is loose and sprawling, with ad hoc outfits that form and disband based on need. After a mass shooting there is an initial media blitz in which survivors are overwhelmed with attention. But after the TV camera crews pack up and leave, the affected communities are left to pick up the pieces. That’s when the emotional support groups reach out.

One of the largest is the Rebels Project, a nonprofit founded by survivors of the 1999 Columbine high school shooting. It was created in 2012 after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., which took place about 20 miles from Columbine. Today the group has over 770 members from roughly 40 different communities of people who have been affected by mass shootings.

New mass shootings “can be really traumatizing,” said Heather Martin, the group’s founder, who was a senior at Columbine high school in 1999. “But you really want to help.”

The Rebels Project began its outreach to the Aurora survivors through local TV news interviews, holding monthly meetings in a local church that offered its space for free. They had few attendees at first, but that wasn’t unexpected.

“In the immediate aftermath, you just want to be left alone,” Ms. Martin said. “The media is everywhere, bothering everyone they can for a story.” But the Rebels Project kept holding meetings, and attendance grew as word-of-mouth knowledge of the group spread.

Today, members meet face to face, over Skype or through Google Hangouts, and once a year the group hosts a retreat for survivors from around the country where everyone has a chance to do restorative yoga, share stories and participate in what Ms. Martin calls a “family-friendly ‘let’s get drunk and decompress’ night.”

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