It’s a test no community wants to endure: How will your hometown respond when tragedy strikes at its very heart?
For the people of El Paso, the horrific events of Aug. 3 spoke loud and clear: We live in a warm, loving and welcoming city that refuses to let hate define us, embraces those in need and works together to make things better.
That’s why El Paso Inc. is taking the unusual step of naming our entire community – that means you, along with all your friends, family and neighbors in El Paso – as recipients of the 2019 Community Spirit Award.
Some of us stood patiently in long lines to give blood or to attend the funeral of a woman we’d never met. Many of us prayed for the 22 souls who lost their lives, as well as those who were injured, and their families. And so many of us donated food, water and supplies that emergency centers were overwhelmed.
At the moment of crisis, as gunshots erupted in the Cielo Vista Walmart, store manager Robert Evans and his employees rushed customers toward exits and safety. Others tried to stop the bleeding of those who had been shot. Months later, when Evans and his crew returned to the renovated store, there were many tears and embraces.
As the horrible day progressed, mental health professionals called to the scene consoled friends and families who would not find their loved ones. In the days, weeks and months that followed, Emergence Health Network provided counseling at no cost to more than 250 people, answered thousands of calls to its crisis hotline and spoke with anyone who just needed to talk. Today, as the impact of Aug. 3 continues to ripple through our community, Emergence’s hotline is ready to assist anyone in crisis. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week at (915) 779-1800.
With the reality of that day beginning to sink in, every segment of our community responded. Local funeral homes offered services at no cost, florists delivered hundreds of bouquets, restaurateurs brought meals to people waiting to donate blood. Businesses near the Walmart, like Hooters and Landry’s, opened their doors to anyone in need of water, air conditioning, WiFi and restrooms.
A whole community of professionals – from lawyers to financial advisors, from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center to the victim advocates in the district attorney’s office – donated their time and expertise to help victims facing tough financial decisions and often complex legal issues.
Within weeks, what had been an informal fundraising effort became One Fund El Paso, a collaboration of the city, El Paso Community Foundation and Paso del Norte Community Foundation. Millions of dollars in donations poured in from thousands of caring individuals, businesses and organizations in the El Paso-Juárez community, and from across the country and the world. In December, more than $11.5 million was distributed to victims by the National Compassion Fund, which administered One Fund El Paso.
A makeshift memorial to the victims appeared in a parking lot near the Walmart, filled with flowers, flags and tributes, growing larger every day. Visited by thousands, it was maintained by a willing corps of volunteers, some from area Rotary clubs.
Artists from El Paso and elsewhere used their talents to express our community’s grief and resilience in murals that appeared on blank walls all over town. The hashtag #ElPasoStrong took over social media, businesses designed and sold thousands upon thousands of El Paso Strong T-shirts, and some of them turned up on celebrities. A man from Illinois delivered 22 homemade crosses. Khalid came home to perform at a benefit concert.
Mayor Dee Margo stood up to those, including the president, who said El Paso was one of the country’s most dangerous cities. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke stepped away from his presidential campaign to help our hometown grieve and recover.
National and international media descended on El Paso, and a few stayed long enough to get a sense of our loving community. When the BBC interviewed an El Paso teen whose best friend was among the victims, he was wise beyond his years. He said, “If El Paso was like a real person, it would be a mom and you’d be the son.”
This listing of those we honor with the 2019 Community Spirit Award is hardly complete. We all know someone or some group that made a difference after the events of Aug. 3. If you cried with a stranger, we thank you. If you gave support for a grieving family, we thank you. If you resolved that love will always triumph over hate, we thank you.
And in this city where everyone seems to be connected to, or a cousin of, everyone else, we ask that you share this recognition with your friends and relatives. Never has our community done more to show the size of our heart or the strength of our spirit to the world.
When a writer for Rolling Stone visited El Paso in late August, she wrote an article titled “El Paso is already great.” But we already knew that.