Survivors of the Uvalde school shooting and their families are struggling financially

Oscar Orona had the chance to bring his son home 33 minutes before the 10-year-old’s class was massacred.

The memory of May 24 haunted. It was awards day at Robb Elementary School. Noah beamed and asked to leave school with Orona. But daddy had to work and mommy was recovering from the operation at home. Orona thought it better that Noah stayed with his friends. The boy said okay and jumped off.

Noah ran to the door of the school building, stopped, and turned to wave goodbye.

“That was the last time I saw my old son and now I have a new son,” said Orono, 59. “He survived physically, but mentally, emotionally, I don’t know who this young man is.”

Noah, 10, survived a gunshot wound in the massacre that killed 19 students and two teachers. But family days are now a merry-go-round of chaos. doctor appointments. therapy sessions. Victims, Council and Legal Sessions. Calls. Sympathy. rallies and marches. media leaks. job interviews. money worries. heartbreak on repeat.

For the families of Uvalde, Texas, the dead are buried, but there is little peace for the living. Mourning lurks downtown. Anger breaks out among the residents. There is distrust in every word the officials say. Hugs are the currency of solidarity, but they provide few answers.

When answers arise – as in the case of a new 77-minute video leaked this week – it comes ruthlessly, reopening the wounds. Allegations mark every local council, district, or school board meeting. A full report on the murders, conducted by Texas House investigators and due this weekend, may or may not help.

The mayor of Uvalde has accused the state’s police chief of deception when he described what he said to avoid responsibility. Col. Steven C. McCraw, in turn, claimed it was the school’s police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, who failed in his tenure. The governor praised the alleged heroism of law enforcement and later said he was angry that he had been misled about their inaction. The school board hasn’t come up with a plan for when school will start — in four weeks.

Circumstances are already taking an enormous financial toll on the bereaved. Some families have been able to survive on generous direct donations or GoFundMes. Funeral expenses were covered by a private donor, and some medical needs were covered through insurance waivers. But recovery is far more costly than expected, several surviving families said. Some have made things work by stringing together initial federal emergency assistance of $1,400 per family, donated fuel cards and grocery vouchers.

But the financial support promised by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and other officials within days of the shooting has not fully materialized. Abbott pledged that no affected family would have to deal with any costs, citing $5 million in government funds. But while the government has provided services and help access certain benefits like health insurance, some families still struggle with daily, immediate and unexpected expenses.

Experts say public money given after a mass shooting tragedy doesn’t usually go directly to families, but in the form of grants to officials, who use the money to hire mental health providers, lawyers and other staff to help victims navigate to help through the available help. Uvalde County Commissioners recently approved a contract with an organization in San Antonio to operate the Uvalde Resilience Center, where families meet with advocates. The funding is being controlled by District Attorney Christina Busbee, whose office has not responded to questions about the contract or how the promised $5 million in state funds will be managed.

Abbott also said each family is assigned a victim advocate to help them navigate all available resources, but when asked, several said they were unclear who that person was. Several families said information about access to public or private funds was unclear, intermittent or non-existent.

The governor’s office did not answer specific questions about whether families would receive emergency cash assistance from the state’s $5 million pledge, directing inquiries to a press release that provided no response.

While Abbott promised to make sure even glasses were paid for, Orona has not received money to pay for the ones his son lost that day.

On the private funding side, more than seven Uvalde family memorial funds are growing, pouring into a large account now worth more than $14 million, but the long process of distributing the money means the families are unable to apply for this care until autumn.

“I can barely make it,” said Jose Martinez, father of AJ Martinez, who was shot in the leg and grazed by another bullet. “Our last savings are almost gone.”

Martinez is a truck driver, owner and operator and his wife Kassandra Chavez is a homemaker. He was usually on the go, delivering products across the country and raking in nearly $4,000 a week. But you can’t do that with a traumatized son. Between 160-mile round-trip trips to San Antonio for medical and therapeutic care multiple days a week are the nights they clean and bandage AJ’s wounds and put the 9-year-old to sleep.

The family has bills to pay, but they’re not the kind of people who ask for help, Chavez said. They said they are confused about what is available and don’t have time to investigate. Martinez plans to return to work but is looking for ways to keep him close to his Texas home.

“Nobody understands the consequences for the surviving children,” Chavez said. “Yes, they see our kids walking around, but really, you don’t know. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. You don’t know if he will be angry or upset. Everything triggers him and makes him angry. This is our life now and we cannot change it.”

AJ is trying to be strong for his parents, they said, but all they want is for him to let them know when he’s hurt. “We have to watch him constantly,” Chavez said.

On bad days, when she needs someone who understands her, she calls Abigail Veloz. Veloz is the mother of Miah Cerrillo, the 11-year-old who covered herself in her classmate’s blood and pretended to be dead to avoid being shot by the gunman. It was Miah who called 911 and asked for help using her dead teacher’s phone. Today, Miah can only shower when the door is open and her mother is nearby.

“Mom? Mom? Are you there?” calling for her, recalled Veloz, who replied, “Yes, I’m here. I wont leave you.”

Last week, Miah retold her story to prosecution investigators, leading to a night she spent awake and upset while her parents tried to comfort her.

Miguel Cerillo, her father, attempted to return to work when finances became tighter. But the boss of the tire technician sent him home without pay for 30 days because he couldn’t concentrate.

“We’re a little lost and confused,” Veloz said.

State Senator Roland Gutierrez (D) has sent letters to the governor and Busbee seeking clarity on victim compensation and asking for her removal from office. None of that happened.

But a group of volunteers have been working behind the scenes to help Uvalde’s families. VictimsFirst is an organization of mass shooting victims and survivors who have learned how to best manage donations and ensure they reach those in need.

Along with Jeff Dion of the National Compassion Fund, they collected all private dollars that were donated to the centralized Uvalde pot. They are also following the commitments of nonprofit organizations that have pledged money to hold them accountable and to monitor whether or not the checks make it to the bank accounts of victims and their families.

“When we experience these mass shootings, the only thing you feel is a loss of control,” said the organization’s president, Anita Busch. “One of the things that will help you get back on your feet is the ability to make decisions for yourself. That is why this fund exists. It exists so that the money goes straight to the victims and they can decide what their families have to deal with.”

Busch said it’s best to leave the fund open for some time to maximize the amount of donations it receives. If it closes too early, the type of help families receive will be more limited, she said. But Dion said there are mechanisms in place to make advance payments for families in need.

The fund is holding town halls in the coming weeks to explain the process to Uvalde families, said Mickey Gerdes, a Uvalde businessman who serves on the fund’s steering committee.

Alfred Garza, whose daughter Amerie Jo Garza was killed, recently received cash assistance from a private donor fund to pay bills while he is unemployed as a car salesman.

“When all is quiet and you’re alone, I’ll sit here in the living room and stare at Amerie’s photo. It’s an 18×24 picture of her last school picture,” Garza said. “I’m going to sit here and think about the times we had. I think that’s the really hard part: accepting, accepting the loss and dealing with it head-on. But it’s going to be damn hard.”

There is no amount of money that could fix his son, said Orona, who was in Washington this week to mark the recent passage of gun control measures aimed at stopping future mass shootings. But he’s already trying to make sure Noah has resources for his recovery.

They haven’t gotten a dime from victim compensation funds yet, he said. They opened a GoFundMe, but Orona’s plan is to find a lawyer to turn that money into a foundation for his son when he grows up.

“I’ll be 59, my son will be 10, so in eight years I’ll be 67. Will I be able to take care of him if he can’t take care of himself?” he asked.

As they await the first investigative report into the May 24 events, school shooting victims and survivors say they are preparing for the fallout.

“It’s all so overwhelming,” Garza said. “It has tainted the city, and it will not go away. And where do we go from here?” Survivors of the Uvalde school shooting and their families are struggling financially

James Brien

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