Love in the Face of Tragedy: Volunteering after Unimaginable Acts of Violence

May 31st, 2019…. The words “active shooter” sent ripples of horror through the police radios. A 15-year city employee was on a shooting rampage at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. When it was over, 12 people would be killed (13, including the gunman). Another 4 would be injured.




The VA Beach 12. Lives cut short tragically and violently. Innocent victims cruelly and horribly lost.
When unexpected and unimaginable tragedy hits, the collective community trauma can be devastating. It’s a story we hear far too often: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Pulse Nightclub, Parkland… the list goes on and on, battering us with grief and loss. 


the epoch times
photo, Epoch Times


Communities grieve just like individuals. Disbelief and shock turn into outpouring of grief and sympathy, followed by anger and questioning – “Why did this happen? How do we prevent this from happening again?” Rebuilding, reconnecting with each other, reaffirming love within the community… all of these things must happen as part of the healing process.


1200-25305675-candlesOne way that happens is through coming together at gatherings and vigils, the laying of flowers at the site of the unimaginable, the lighting of candles…. Spontaneous reactions that speak volumes to our human need for connection.


Community meetings, events, fundraisers, online discussion and message threads, all provide networks of support to allow the flow of emotions and help people deal with emotional stress caused by the tragedy. These are pathways of healing. Opportunities for the community to come together and be joined by people all over the world in an effort to offer support and uplift hearts.


Three days after the shooting, I started a new job in Norfolk. The city is few miles West of Virginia Beach but the two are truly one big community. Entering into this new hometown just as it was in the early stages of mourning was disquieting. I could feel the community in shock, the somber energy, the deep sadness. 


People I met on the streets and in the stores were talking about the shock, trying to come to terms with it. How could this have happened here?” They asked.


my news 13

I immediately wanted to help stop the pain and help the community rebuild, but did not know what to do as an outsider.


I’ve felt this way before – in earlier tragic shootings around the country.

(photo, My News 13)


When something tragic happens our instinct is to reach out to try and stem the pain. 


People want to help the community, to show love, to uplift, but how?


This post is not about me, except to share ideas of ways to help communities reeling in the aftermath of tragedy.


Some things you can do from wherever you are:


  • Donate to a verified fundraising effort;
  • Volunteer at a fundraiser aimed at helping the victims;
  • Organize a fundraiser by calling local businesses and theaters and asking them to donate profits from a specific evening ;
  • Hold a “message gathering” by having guests write notes of support and then sending them to the local first responders or town hall of the affected community;
  • Have students in your school draw pictures or weave string bracelets to send to students in a school in the affected community;
  • Post messages of support on community social media accounts to let the residents know you are thinking of them;
  • Reach out to local churches in the affected community to see how you can help.


I have a few words of advice:


  • Make sure you vet out any organization before making a financial donations. You want to be sure your donation goes directly, and fully, to the victims and/or their families, or to the community as a whole.
  • Remember that response to grief is unique and we need to be mindful of how each community wants and needs to express grief. Communities, like individuals, grieve at their own pace. One community may be open to your sending letters, another may need more time before they are willing to share their vulnerability with those outside the community.
  • After all the cameras leave and the events calm down, communities still need love. Why not wait 3-6 months after a tragedy to reach out to a church or school or town official and send notes and hand-written cards to let the community know they are still on your mind and still loved?


volunteer HR logo




What did I do? How did I support? Newly local and wanting to help, but unsure of how, I immediately looked to the local news for information on vigils and events.


Volunteer Hampton Roads was hosting a variety of local VB Strong events, including one titled “Signs of Strength” – a campaign where twelve 12-foot blank signs would be publicly displayed for the public to leave messages of tribute, hope, love, support, etc.


The 12 banners would be spread out across the area over two days, to allow the public time to sign them. I registered as a volunteer to man one of the stations. I would spend the afternoon at one of the local malls assisting those who wanted to write messages on the banner.


Almost everyone who passed by stopped to sign. Many shared stories of their love of Virginia Beach and their community. 



After two days of signing, all 12 banners would be hung in the municipal complex at Virginia Beach to surround the local community and the town workers with love.  Virginia Beach employees would walk along and under the signs as they went to work, hopefully feeling uplifted by the messages.



It was an amazing afternoon with much outpouring of love, many stories, and much hugging.


I felt a part of the community as it struggled to begin to heal and deeply connected with visitors who signed the banner…..





There is a way to stand firm against the forces of evil and shout in the face of tragedy, “We will not succumb to our grief. Tragedy seeks to tear us apart but we will unite and build a way forward together.”



How do we treat each other? How should we live? How should we co-create a future we can live into? How can we uplift each other during the most devastating of times?


We thrive in community… in our shared humanity. There are beautiful responses to grief that let us connect at a deeper level. You can be part of that love.


This post is dedicated to the 12 victims of the Virginia Beach shooting. Individuals who went to work that day and never came home. My heart is with their families….




Top Row (left to right): Robert “Bobby” Williams, Herbert “Bert” Snelling, Ryan Keith Cox, Michelle “Missy” Langer, Alexander Mikhail Gusev, Richard Nettleton; Bottom Row (left to right): Mary Louise Gayle, Tara Welch Gallagher, Christopher Kelly Rapp, Joshua Hardy, Laquita Brown, Katherine Nixon


To see photos of the 12 victims and read their stories, you can check out:


Thank you for being part of my journey this week.


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