The library in Uvalde has become a source of comfort and support for the tight-knit Texas community after 19 children and two teachers were gunned down inside Robb Elementary School, and now as parents, students and teachers prepare to go back to school.
Mendell Morgan, the director of the El Progreso Memorial Library, was driving back to Uvalde from San Antonio, Texas, when the unthinkable occurred. His staff notified him that something horrible was happening at the school just a few blocks away. Some of them heard the shots.
Morgan says the drive into Uvalde was "surreal," as he had to "pull over multiple times" for several law enforcement vehicles and ambulances speeding towards Uvalde, and he watched ambulances and helicopters leave in the opposite direction.
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When Morgan arrived at the deserted library he began to watch the news.
"My first response was that we should close the library, as a sign of respect," Morgan explained. "Then I reflected about it and realized there was nothing we could do to help the victims or their families by being closed. Rather, my thought was: We need to be as normal as we can for those who have survived."
Morgan asked one of his librarians to hold a story hour for the children of the community. She was reluctant at first, he says.
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After the story hour, the children's librarian took Morgan aside.
"She said, 'I am so glad you did this, because I meant to help the children, but what happened was: The children helped me,'" Morgan said. "That really helped set the tone for what was to come over the ensuing weeks."
'This library is here for a time such as this '
During the evening of May 24th, Morgan says he decided to open the next morning.
"I thought ... What do people need?" he said.
Morgan started pulling books on sorrow and coping with grief. What he didn't have in the library, he ordered from Amazon. He set up a table specifically to showcase those books, knowing they were what the community needed most.
Over the summer, the library staff and volunteers have held events for the community, offering a much-needed sense of normalcy and joy.
They've done this despite having personally lost loved ones in the deadly shooting.
"We have nine people on the payroll, and four of them have a niece, a cousin or the best friend of a granddaughter who died in the event," Morgan explained. "If they don't have a direct connection, they have some connection. This town is just too small and interconnected."
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Volunteers and donations have poured into the library from around the world.
Retired combat veteran and certified psychologist Bob Stead reached out to other psychologists and told them, according to Morgan, "We need to go to Uvalde."
In addition to virtual counseling, the group set up a community relaxation room in the library — known as the "Soft Space" — with beanbags, blankets, snacks, bottled water and soft drinks. Members of a nearby church filled the room with handmade quilts, free for anyone who wants one.
Other volunteers have offered massage therapies, yoga classes, art therapy and clay workshops. Naomi Shihab Nye, an author and poet in San Antonio, brought local artists to do art, music, poetry and journaling with the children.
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Morgan says people from across the country and around the world have donated thousands of books.
"We had about 70,000 volumes in the library. It has taken us 119 years to build a collection to that level," he added. "Since May, 24, we have received over 8,000 additional nice, new books."
The library even hosted bunnies and miniature ponies — to Morgan’s relief, the ponies were housebroken.
The library director's favorite event occurred on June 12, when bodybuilders, acrobats and actors impersonating superheroes brought $10,000 worth of toys, 1,000 snow cones, hot dogs, ice cream, a bubble truck, and bounce houses. For an entire day, Spider-Man and Spider Gwen, Wonder Woman and Superman, Minnie and Micky Mouse, and the Ghostbusters all took turns reading to thousands of children and their parents.
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At one point, the volunteers worried they'd run out of toys, so a few purchased another $3,000 worth of toys from a local store so no child would be turned away.
A library board member attended the event and told Morgan something that he says will stay with him forever.
"She shared the thesis of the Biblical scripture Esther 4:14," Morgan said, in which Esther's uncle tells her that perhaps she was born for a time such as this, to save her people. "She said, 'Mendell, this library is here for a time such as this.' I thought, 'Wow, that's profound. That's powerful. And I believe you're right.'
"For the first time since this tragedy occurred I’ve seen my child smile'
Morgan knows there will be more heartbreak ahead, especially as more reports detailing the catastrophic failure of multiple law enforcement agencies are revealed and a new school years starts.
“It just created fresh injury to the deep, deep wounds here,” he explained.
Thanks to about $65,000 in generous donations from across the country, Morgan says the library can now continue to provide a variety of programs — no matter what comes next.
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In addition, volunteer florists who helped with funerals and memorials, and who refused payment but were paid anyway, donated that money to the library — $22,000 in total.
"We're creating what we're calling 'Los Angelitos de Robb' — the 'Little Angels of Robb,'" Morgan said, explaining the permanent endowment will pay for children's books, magazines, software, puzzles, and toys, in addition to events. "I'll have money to pay for all that now, forever."
Morgan has seen firsthand how the the library has helped the community heal.
"In one of the early times, a young mom came in almost in tears," Morgan said. "She said, 'I cannot tell you what it means to me that you all are doing this, because for the first time since this tragedy occurred I've seen my child smile.'"