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Teens help community, themselves heal in aftermath of shootings

Teens try to launch a lantern

The plan was to memorialize each victim with the release of a hot-air-powered lantern, but the first attempt ended with stomps as a gusty wind ignited the white paper.

A crew did finally get one to lift off in honor of all the dead. But a tree briefly snagged that one, and it skittered off the roof of a car as it drifted downward.

That might’ve been the only snafu, though, in a Friday evening event held just days after a gunman killed three people outside the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom retirement center, which sit about a mile and a half apart in Overland Park. The suspect is a southwest Missouri man with a history of anti-Semitic and white supremacist activities.

Planners expected perhaps as many as 750 participants at the candlelight vigil and walk — which snaked along Nall Avenue from the JCC to Village Shalom and back again. But police estimated the crowd to be about four times that large — swelling to perhaps as many as 3,000 people.

Short-sleeve weather prevailed even at dusk, silhouetting some of the walkers who left the beaten path to climb hills in fields surrounding the JCC.

Organized by teens, Friday’s event was a chance for students to add their voices to those of the adults, who had led memorial services and press briefings throughout the week. One of the victims was a local high school student.

 Mental health professionals, including a Jewish psychiatrist who attended the walk, said the actions of the teens were a perfect way for them — and other community members — to process the events of the week.

Ellie Bodker, 15, a sophomore at Blue Valley North High School, was one of the organizers. “As teens,” she said, “we feel it is our responsibility to step up and do something.”

The shootings

Accused in the April 13 shootings is Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., 73, of Aurora, Mo., who is better known as F. Glenn Miller Jr.

Prosecutors have charged him with one count of capital murder in the killings of 69-year-old Overland Park doctor William Lewis Corporon and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood. Reat was a freshman at Blue Valley High School.

Authorities have also charged Miller with first-degree murder in the killing of Terri LaManno, 53, a Kansas City mother of three who was shot outside Village Shalom.

None of the victims was Jewish. The shootings happened on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

It remains unclear why Miller targeted facilities a three-hour drive away from his home.

Law enforcement authorities allege that Miller shot Corporon and his grandson in the parking lot of the JCC before driving to Village Shalom. Former Overland Park police Chief John Douglass has said that Miller also shot at two other people, but missed. (Douglass retired Friday after 40 years with the department, according to the Kansas City Star.)

Miller was arrested about 20 minutes after the first shootings in the parking lot of a nearby elementary school. He is in jail in lieu of a $10 million bond.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which works against hate groups, Miller is the former “grand dragon” of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which he founded and ran in the 1980s. The center says it sued the organization for operating an illegal paramilitary organization and using intimidation tactics against African Americans.

The center says that Miller then formed another Klan group, the White Patriot Party, through which he was found in criminal contempt and sentenced to six months in prison for violating the settlement from the court case.

According to the center, he served three years in federal prison after being indicted on weapons charges and for plotting robberies and the assassination of SPLC founder Morris Dees.

‘beyond amazing’

Emily Milakovic, a 17-year-old junior at Blue Valley High School, spoke to the crowd about Reat in a ceremony before the walk.

“The way everyone came together is beyond amazing,” she said. “We brought something beautiful out of something so horrible. Love is always stronger than hate. We will take a while to heal — we will all move forward at our own pace and in our own way — but we will carry on, and we will carry our memories with us.”

Organizers of Friday’s event included Josh Kaseff, 18, and Jacklin Shapiro, 17. The two are seniors at Blue Valley North High School.

Josh said the memorial drove home the reality of the shootings, but that the sense of community demonstrated by the crowd buoyed his spirits.

Both students said they spend a lot of time at the JCC, and that they wanted to prove that the killings would not scare them away.

“We know the walk can’t change what happened — it happened,” Jacklin said. “This is us just kind of moving forward. For me, this is a sense of community and a sense of hope.”

For attendees like Rhyan Whitehead, 16, a student at Blue Valley High School, the gathering presented an uplifting opportunity for closure. “It definitely puts a positive light on the whole situation,” she said.

Adult perspective

Precious Stargell Cushman and her husband, Mike Cushman, are an interracial couple from Overland Park. She is black and he is white.

They participated in the walk as proponents of inclusion and acceptance. It was particularly impressive for Precious that the whole event came about through the efforts of teens.

“It really is inspirational,” she said. “It warms my heart.”

Ron and Gayle Levin, of Overland Park, experienced the planning firsthand as their son, Blaine, is in a youth group that helped spearhead the vigil.

They were struck by the teens’ alacrity.

“When it all came about,” Ron said, “it was like they all immediately knew they had to do something.”

Within less than 24 hours, he said, the youth groups had hit upon the idea of the walk and had already started on logistics.

Tweets and texts

Social media can certainly have negative effects for teens, said Dr. Ken Sonnenschein, a private practice psychiatrist in Overland Park. He is also an active member of the Jewish community.

But, in this case, the connectedness of the youths showed the power of social media. And the fact that they pulled the event off so quickly actually conformed perfectly to effective crisis response.

“The No. 1 thing you want to do as a mental health provider is give people a safe and comfortable time and place to tell their story,” Sonnenschein said, “and the sooner you are able to do that, the sooner people are able to start processing what happened.”

A nice walk provided a great opportunity for those conversations to occur, he said.

The fact that the teenagers could come together with people their own age was also particularly powerful, Sonnenschein said. “Peers are cool,” he said. “It feels cool to be walking and talking and grieving and being mad and scared and frustrated and lonely.”

Achieving such success, he said, should also help them the next time they experience a challenge or trauma.

Marsha Morgan is chief operating officer for behavioral health at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo.

She is a leader in a regional effort to improve mental health services for children, and she is also involved in efforts to educate area providers on the concept of trauma-informed care, which teaches practitioners to take into account unsettling events from a person’s past when treating them.

Morgan and Sharon Freese, associate administrator for behavioral health at TMC, said it was particularly important for the teens to return to the JCC.

“I think they should be applauded for taking action and not caving in,” Morgan said, “and really coming out and saying ‘This is our space and you can’t have it.’”

Added Freese: “I think ‘resilience’ is the word that come most quickly to mind about what this demonstrates. It is one of the healthiest things they could’ve done.”

Relief

By 8:30 p.m. Friday, the crowd that had returned to the JCC had largely dispersed.

It was then that Josh Kaseff could let out a sigh of relief. He could even chuckle about the lantern problems, which had the potential to do some bodily harm.

He didn’t say it, but the last thing anybody needed to see was emergency vehicles pulling into the JCC.

“We are just glad no one was hurt,” he said.

Major Funding for Health coverage on KCPT provided by Assurant Employee Benefits and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.


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