Recovery plans key to mass tragedy healing

7/20 Recovery Committee members discuss lessons learned from Aurora shooting



“We’ve learned that victims like to get together in a safe environment and get a lot of comfort from one another even if they don’t talk about what has happened. A lot of people find it comforting to just be in a place where people understand them.”

— Peggy Horner, of the 7/20 Recovery Team, about establishing community centers to help recovery process in the wake of a mass tragedy.

— During the course of a large-scale tragedy or a natural disaster, many communities discover they were better equipped to respond to the emergency than they expected.

What’s often forgotten is the aftermath and the vast amount of resources a community needs to negotiate the long and difficult road to recovery.

On Thursday, local elected officials and public safety personnel met at the Moffat County Public Safety Center for a second meeting to discuss Craig’s preparedness to recover from to a large-scale tragedy or natural disaster.

Rich Audsley, special advisor to the 7/20 Recovery Committee, was invited to talk about the steps the Aurora public safety community took to respond to the mental health needs of victims, first responders and the community in general in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting.

Audsley was a 31-year executive with the United Way, most recently serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Mile High United Way in Denver. During his tenure, Audsley has managed community healing processes following the Columbine High School shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Virginia Tech shootings and the Westroads Mall shootings in Omaha, Neb.

He was joined by Peggy Horner, also of the 7/20 Recovery Team, who said there are several key plans every community needs to have in place in the hours, days, weeks, months and years following a tragedy.

The one thing that goes overlooked more often than not is an outpouring of financial support from people throughout the country.

“When tragedy happens people not directly affected want to feel better about it by donating money, that’s just human nature,” Horner said. “It not only sets the tone for how a community begins to heal, but it can also divide a community.”

Audsley compared his experiences with the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton with the Aurora theater shooting to illustrate Horner’s point. Though both examples were similar in the sense that they were both mass shootings, there was a stark contrast in the type of community that was affected.

Because Columbine happened at a high school, there was a tighter bond among those affected because everyone knew one another, Audsley said. When it came time to establish a victims fund, those who lost loved ones knew money wouldn’t bring their family members back and were more agreeable to seeing the survivors who sustained life-changing injuries benefit from the influx of financial support.

The Aurora theater shooting differed from Columbine because it happened in a public setting, Audsley said. When it came time to distribute victim support dollars, the powers that be made the decision to base each victim’s allocation strictly off the length of their hospital stay, which has resulted in a divisive public debate about what makes one victim more deserving than another.

A community plan to respond to the financial support is vital, Horner said, because during a community tragedy the entire community is the victim.

Horner said an alternative idea might be to establish a drop-in community center to provide long-term mental health services to all community members. With the support of five partners, including the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Center, Horner said Aurora is about a month away from opening the Aurora Strong Resilience Center.

Though the center will offer mental health services, Horner said it won’t be advertised as such. It is being designed as a safe place where members of the community can go to participate in activities such as music and art therapy, or simply as a place to take the kids to play a few games of pingpong.

“We’ve learned that victims like to get together in a safe environment and get a lot of comfort from one another even if they don’t talk about what has happened,” Horner said. “A lot of people find it comforting to just be in a place where people understand them.”

Joe Moylan can be reached at 970-875-1794 or


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