The $34,000 is being spent on support groups for the MSD community, which went unfunded until this grant.
By Hope Dean
Trauma recovery doesn’t just happen in a white-walled facility. Sometimes it takes place in a farm stocked with Shetland ponies, donkeys, and goats and a pig.
Parkland Cares, launched after the last year’s 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) in Parkland, awards grants to mental health groups to provide short and long-term grief counseling for all who need it. It has awarded $239,000 to six different organizations in the past year, and $34,000 of that went to Tomorrow’s Rainbow, a Coconut Creek center offering free grief support groups, retreats, and camps for minors and their families featuring animal therapy.
Tomorrow’s Rainbow had been providing group therapy and exclusive one-on-one sessions for the MSD community since the shooting, but they still had previously existing therapy services to fund. They couldn’t afford the surplus of services, so they halted farm maintenance and thought about cutting back on some programs until the February 2019 Parkland Cares grant came along, Executive Director Abby Mosher said.
“When the shooting happened, we just started providing services — and truthfully, we weren’t sure how we were going to pay for it. But we were going to do it, because that was the right thing to do,” Mosher said. “So it was certainly a leap of faith, and what this [grant] does is it just empowers us to strengthen the program.”
Tomorrow’s Rainbow has now hired two part-time employees to handle administrative duties so that staff can focus on adding more MSD programming instead of stretching themselves too thin, Mosher said. Tomorrow’s Rainbow serves about 500 children and their families a year, but have a separate 22-person support group for MSD survivors, according to Program Director Marla Berger.
And their services to the MSD community go beyond that — Tomorrow’s Rainbow also works with people who weren’t there the day of the shooting but were still affected by it, such as those who lost a friend, sibling, or teacher. They’ve even built a “Douglas Den” and “Douglas Deck,” a renovated horse stall and patio, for the MSD groups to hang out and talk in.
These programs are more important than ever now that a year has passed since the shooting, Mosher said. “The Harvard [Child] Bereavement Study shows us that a year and especially two years down the road, if this grief and loss is not supported, that’s when we’re really going to see the negative behaviors. And so we are actually bracing for just that,” she added.
These negative behaviors include low self-esteem, low academic performance, social isolation, substance abuse, self-harming, and suicide — and they’re happening now. A 19-year-old MSD survivor named Sydney Aiello died by suicide about a month after the shooting’s one-year mark, and a 16-year-old boy named Calvin Desir also ended his life later that week.
Some survivors have become different people after the shooting, but are striving to recover.
One survivor, Jade Muller, spoke about her experiences with Tomorrow’s Rainbow during an event for Children’s Grief Awareness Day in November 2018. She said the last she remembered of her “old” self was checking the clock, which read at 2:20, on the day of the shooting.
Muller heard cracks in the distance and thought they were just Valentine’s Day balloons popping, but the next thing she knew her 24-person English class was crowded behind the teacher’s desk. Only 21 were left alive when the SWAT team arrived, and Muller had lost five friends throughout the school.
“My emotions felt paralyzed. I was in complete shock … with continuous bouts of vomiting. Something had left me,” Muller, who was a freshman at the time of the shooting, said. She saw a flyer for Tomorrow’s Rainbow not long after, and went to see if they could help the third day after the shooting. But what ended up helping her the most wasn’t people — it was a miniature horse named Precious.
She says that Precious’ personality isn’t true to her name, but that she felt a connection all the same. “With dogs, you know that they will love you unconditionally, but with a horse, you have to gain their sense of respect … I feel I’m like that,” she said. “Connecting with Precious made it possible for me to move forward.”
What also made it easier to start recovering was the fact that Tomorrow’s Rainbow made her feel comfortable, she added.
“Following the shooting, I didn’t want to go to therapy. I didn’t want anyone asking me questions like how do I feel, especially because I didn’t know how I felt. There was something different about Tomorrow’s Rainbow and the horses. I just had a feeling. Somehow I knew that I’d be safe,” Muller said. “There’s no other place like it.”
Tomorrow’s Rainbow will continue to adapt to the MSD community’s therapeutic needs and may even start some new support groups in the future, such as one for MSD teachers who were there during the shooting. The grant makes it easier to follow through with their vision for helping the community, Mosher said.
“[Parkland Cares] empowered us. We knew where we needed to go and what we needed to do, we just weren’t sure how in the world we were going to be able to do that. So it has just made it possible for us to do our very best on behalf of those grieving families and the Parkland community,” she said.