Beliefnet News

By Chris A. Courogen
Religion News Service

Nickel Mines, Pa. – Things seem normal as you drive the narrow country roads that wind through southern Lancaster County.
The tobacco hangs drying in barns, the way it has for generations.
Horse-drawn mowers are cutting hay, and buggies are still spreading road apples.
If you didn’t know that one year ago Tuesday (Oct. 2) a gunman stormed a one-room school and gunned down 10 girls, you’d think life in Bart Township was pretty much the same as it has been for years.
Things are not the same, though. They never will be, folks who live there say.
The West Nickel Mines Amish School, where Charles Roberts’ invasion ended with him killing five of the girls, is no more. The schoolyard where one of the victims died in a state police trooper’s arms is now part of a nearby farm’s pasture. Three of the five girls who survived the shooting attend classes in a new school, built a few hundred yards away.
Standing at the site of the old school, you can look up a small hill and see the New Hope School. To the untrained eye, the scene at the new school looks like it did at the old school before the shootings. The younger kids still gather under trees during recess to play house. Older children still play softball.
Look closer, and you will notice obvious differences, like the new location, set back from the road, protected by nearby homes. The doors stay closed during classes now. Other differences are more subtle.
“You don’t see them walking to school by themselves anymore. There is usually a parent tagging along,” said Sam Fisher, the owner of the auction house that served as media headquarters after the shootings.
“It’s about as normal as can be expected,” said one Amish man. “It’s never going to be completely the same.”
The students who went through the ordeal still struggle with its aftermath, the man said. One, who suffered a severe head wound, uses a reclining wheelchair, is fed by a tube and unable to speak. Another, also shot in the head, has vision problems. A third, shot in the shoulder, is recovering from reconstructive nerve surgery.
That is the visible aftermath. Other problems lie beneath the surface.
Some girls are still afraid to sleep in their own rooms, another Amish man said. The presence of strange men also causes anxiety. Survivor’s guilt haunts the 15 boys Roberts allowed to leave the school.
“The casual observation is they are doing well given what happened to them,” said Herman Bontranger, a spokesman for the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which administers the more than $4.3 million in donations that poured in after the shootings.
“You can drive through, it looks very normal,” Bontranger said. “When you talk to people, though, you discover the pain is very real. The pain is very real, and it is daily.”
Much has been made of the strength of the Amish community’s faith and its willingness to forgive Roberts. Bontranger said the Amish have not relied on faith alone. Most have also reached out for help from mental health professionals, including two organizations that specialize in dealing with the Amish.
“They are very much aware they need help, and they are seeking it,”
Bontranger said.
About one-third of the donated money has been spent on things such as medical care, transportation for the victims and their families, and renovations to make the home of the most severely wounded girl accessible to her. The remaining money will be put into a trust fund to cover ongoing expenses, including mental health care, Bontranger said.
“We need to think five, 10, even 20 years down the road. There is a great deal of awareness in the community that psychological issues come with something like this. Something like this is a lifetime thing,”
Bontranger said.
In June, the 10 state troopers who were the first to arrive at the school were awarded the state police’s Medal of Honor.
A few weeks later, they joined other first responders, the students, their families and others at a picnic sponsored by the Amish. They ate, played baseball and volleyball, and strengthened their bonds with the survivors and their families.
“It helped their grieving process. It was as if somebody had professionally designed it, in terms of therapy and dealing with grief counseling,” said the Rev. Grover G. DeVault, the barracks chaplain.
DeVault said all the troopers suffered post-traumatic stress to different degrees, but none was debilitated by it. None needed special leave. None is in ongoing therapy, although it remains available if they need it.
Paramedics and emergency medical technicians underwent a similar process. EMT Dennis Fromm was the first medical person to arrive at the school.
“There are days you get to thinking about it,” Fromm said, “and then you lean towards your faith and your family.”
There were no public memorial services or other remembrances on Tuesday. Classes were canceled at the new school, more to shield the children from unwanted media attention and less to observe the anniversary.
Curt Woerth, the fire chief in Bart Township, said he hoped for “as normal a day as possible.” But as Fromm pointed out, the definition of a normal day has changed forever in Nickel Mines.
“You have a new normal now,” he said. “Everything is not quite the same.”

Chris A. Courogen writes for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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