People are forgetting about Uvalde, and Wanda Montemayor said the community can feel it.
She said residents also feel a heaviness that's lingered since the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School, which left 19 children and two teachers dead.
The rest of the country can move on, but parents still ask what to do when their children have nightmares or panic attacks. They keep busy so that they don't have time to stop and think about the tragedy.
All Uvalde residents want is to go back to everyday life. They don't want to be known as the school shooting town.
Montemayor, an art therapist in Austin, kept that in mind when thinking about how to help the Uvalde community. Now she's using group and art therapy to build a mosaic mural and keep others from feeling alone.
For the Uvalde Love Project, Montemayor and her team of eight therapists drive from Austin to Uvalde three times a month — on one Sunday and two Mondays. They host group therapy for children and parents, and then there are community art therapy sessions called Tacos and Tiles. Community members can join in making tiles for the mosaic mural at these events and receive support in a space that doesn't feel clinical.
"That personal connection and that feeling of safety is where the healing begins, and it's the collectiveness," Montemayor said. "It's not that, 'I'm alone in these feelings.' It's like, 'I'm with you and you and you, and we're on the same feeling together'... not being alone in your head with these feelings."
Community connectedness through group therapy
Montemayor, who worked as an art teacher for 23 years before diving into group and art therapy, said it was important that the project didn't serve as a "one and done" deal. She said loving, connected relationships are key when addressing trauma in children, who experience a heavier impact from shocking events than adults.
"If something horrible happened to me, my brain has really grown, and it's strong," Montemayor said. "For a little person, their highways are growing so, so superfast. So if something hits it, like that's at the beginning of their highway, and if it doesn't get repaired, then that has never-ending, lasting effects."
Luckily, trauma can be healed, Montemayor said. For the children in Uvalde, group therapy was a great way to assist the healing process, as Montemayor said they stopped responding to one-on-one sessions with adults.
"The kids are like we're just here together connecting and like checking your engine. How distressed are you learning all the things?" Montemayor said. "They just love being with each other, and then also they get an exposure when they walk into the building. They have some of their classmates and their family."
Parents also have group therapy sessions, which are offered in both English and Spanish.
"It was hard for them to talk about their children and the experience they've gone through," said Yadi Puente, a bilingual art therapist from San Antonio. "A lot of parents would remain either quiet or silently weep, and now I'm starting to notice the parents are opening up and sharing their own thoughts and experiences with each other."
Puente said the parents have begun not only to share but also to trust in the Uvalde Love Project team.
"I think there's been a lot of different projects that have started here, and the people sometimes couldn't trust, or they just thought that it was another thing that people were just coming and doing and then quickly leaving," Puente said. "So what I've heard from the parents is that they were glad that we struck around and that we're here on a monthly basis to support them."
Making the mural piece by piece
Children, parents, other community members and the nine Uvalde district teachers working directly with the project all have the chance to work on the mural after group therapy. Each tile is handmade with clay into shapes such as squares and flowers and embellished with imprints of butterflies, names, messages and more.
"The most rewarding part that I've noticed is parents being able to come in and say, 'I'm not an artist,' and they don't want to partake at first, but then I just place a piece of clay in front of them," Puente said. "And those are the parents that turn out to be the most creative and create the most tiles, so it's a wonderful experience to see them come full circle."
These tiles will form a joyful mural for display at Jardin de Los Heroes Park. That's what the people of Uvalde wanted — something happy. But the Robb Elementary teachers also wanted something to represent the lives lost in the shooting. So the Uvalde Love Project decided on a mural depicting a tranquil landscape with 21 glass butterflies symbolizing the murdered students and teachers.
Color del dolor: 21 Uvalde murals of Robb Elementary victims use paint to heal pain
The mural will also feature many butterflies representing the living; a coyote, the town's symbol; a large live oak and sapling since Uvalde is called the tree city; water representing the Nueces River, which runs nearby; and bunches of blanket flowers, which are native to Texas.
"From far away, you see this basic image, but when you come close, you have this dialogue with the community," Montemayor said. "You're reading their messages, you're reading their names. It makes you a part of it.
Montemayor provides clay and other materials for the tiles. She also said she takes the finished pieces back and forth between Uvalde and Austin because there are no kilns, which harden clay, in Uvalde's elementary and middle schools.
The mosaic mural is made even more special by the fact that Uvalde doesn't currently have any mosaic pieces, Montemayor said. She also said mosaic provides a unique opportunity for many people to have involvement.
"Mosaics by themselves have such a beautiful metaphor where you take something broken and then you make it into something again," Montemayor said. "When I started out with painting murals, it was just a much more limited amount of people who were making the murals. And then I moved over to mosaic, and it was like a whole different shift for me."
Montemayor said the team hopes to install the mural in June, but since the project is so grassroots, it is in need of money. Donations can be made through the Uvalde Love Project website.
"There's not like the magical words you could say to make really sad things go away," Montemayor said. "The magic is you acknowledge that it's freaking sad. And then if you can move through it, if you could dance through it, if you could rip through it ... it's the physical moving through that is really what helps with grief."
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Uvalde Love Project uses art, group therapy for healing after shooting