After a gunman killed 19 fourth graders and two teachers inside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a number of memorials went up across the town.
The moms behind two of them are speaking out about their grief and anger.
Monica Morales, 47, was raised in Uvalde and owns a daycare in town. She helped care for many of the 19 children who were murdered inside their fourth grade class on Tuesday.
“I do know a lot of them that I had from a previous child care center that I had before,” Morales told TODAY Parents. “And of course, from sports and a lot of activities that children are typically engaged in that we were always part of.”
A mother of four children and grandmother of three, Morales says she felt an intense need to do something to show love and support for the families, friends and loved ones of those who perished.
She and her daughter Lydia, 22, decided to stage 21 chairs outside of her daycare — a white sheet of paper with a single victim’s name taped to each.
“It’s been hard on us — I’ve watched these children grow,” Morales explained. “This is just a small little token of how we can help.”
Lydia, who helped her mother carefully tape the names to the chairs, also works at her mom’s daycare. She found out her 3rd grade teacher, Irma Garcia, had died in the shooting.
“I found out my teacher was sacrificing her life for all these kids,” Lydia told TODAY Parents. “Just hearing that they shot up a school ... how could he do that? How could he do that to innocent children? It’s taking a toll on the community.”
‘I thought I had done everything I could to protect them’
Morales says that her daycare went on lockdown on Tuesday from the start of the massacre until the last child was picked up by their parent — around 6:00 p.m.
“Our kids are a little too small to understand what’s going on,” she said. “They talk about it now because they hear other people talk about it, and we just assure them that they’re safe.”
Morales says it is impossible to look at her grandchildren and not think “what if,” especially when one of her daughters was attending high school as the gunman opened fire inside Robb Elementary.
“It was total chaos for me,” she said. “I couldn’t leave my children that I had at the daycare to be with my own daughter, so I was just hoping that whoever was in charge of her at that time would do whatever they could to protect her.”
Morales moved her family to her hometown of Uvalde because she thought they would be safe here.
“My husband was ex-military, and we moved all around the world,” Morales explained. “But I moved back to Uvalde to give our kids a better life — to be safe. I thought bringing my kids here and having them go to school here was the best move that I could make for them.”
The devoted mother and grandmother says now she just doesn’t know what to think.
“You don’t know what else to do,” she explained. “I thought I had done everything I could to protect them from having to see or feel any of this for themselves.”
‘This is my peaceful side. The angry side of me is mad as hell’
Just a few feet away, Belinda Benavidez, from San Antonio, was setting up another memorial — 21 white crosses, adorned with American flags and red, white and blue ribbons.
A mother of two and a grandmother of two, Benavidez started her career in Uvalde selling yellow pages. When she heard about the shooting, she wanted to show the community her support.
“I wanted to come and do something. I want to give the city a giant hug,” Benavidez told TODAY Parents. “There is so much grief. And I'm sure the memorials are helping to bring condolences to the families.”
On Thursday afternoon, she went to Home Depot and bought the necessary items to create 21 wooden crosses. For four hours, she assembled the crosses herself, painting them white and driving them to Uvalde.
As she began to set them up on the side of the road, strangers stopped and helped properly stake the crosses into the ground.
“It was wonderful,” the mom and grandmother said. “It was a blessing for them to come and help, and welcoming — everybody wants to be a part and everybody wants to do something. So I was happy to have them join in.”
Benavidez says she wanted to set up a memorial in Uvalde out of respect for her community, the families of the victims and the survivors who she knows will face horrors for years to come.
But she also wants to send a message to Texas leaders and others — she wants people to see the crosses, count them all and realize that “in one hour or less we lost that many people.”
“This is the peaceful side of me,” she said. “The angry side of me is mad as hell. Those Texas leaders? Those political leaders? You deal with what those families have to deal with — you see it. You live with it for the rest of your life... but they don’t.”
The memorials keep growing
Makeshift memorials have taken the place of Memorial Day decorations and signs congratulating students from graduating high school in Uvalde.
Twenty-one white crosses, one for every victim, stand at the city’s center — a memorial that has grown to include flowers, candles, signs, toy cars for the children, pictures of religious figures and a single stuffed teddy bear with a sign taped to his belly saying “Sutherland Springs feels you.”
(More than two dozen people were killed in 2017 when a gunman opened fire at a Sunday service at a church in Sutherland Springs, about two hours east of Uvalde.)
No one knows who put up those 21 white crosses.
“We’ve been trying to figure it out, but it’s a mystery,” one local woman, who was passing out free cold waters in the 97 degree heat at the memorial, told TODAY Parents. “It’s just anonymous.”
Placed anonymously or not, the memorials around Uvalde are not only offering a grieving community a place to mourn and heal; for Benavidez and others, they serve as a painful reminder that the smiling faces of the 19 murdered children in the pictures on those memorials will never get any older.
“You know how you watch your friends’ children grow up and you’re part of their lives?” she asked. “That’s what those pictures seem like — like you’d be following their lives through the community and their family. I thought about that one little boy dressed in blue (Xavier Lopez): He’s so cute! I thought to myself, 'He’s going to be so handsome when he gets older.'
“And guess what? He’s not going to be," Benavidez added, her voice shaking as tears welled in her eyes. "Because of this tragedy. One that could have been prevented.”