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Illinois Baptists aid after shooting spree

People gather around a makeshift memorial for victims of the Highland Park mass shooting that occurred on the Fourth of July. Screenshot WGN

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. (BP) – “When you ask if [someone was] a victim of the parade shooting, you get several different responses,” said Bev Laechelt, a volunteer with Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief (IBDR). “Some people are very angry and they say ‘I-am-not-a-victim; I’m a survivor.’ Or they start crying because it’s the first time they’ve talked about it, and I have to get them to a counselor right away.”

Laechelt and her husband, Wayne, also an IBDR volunteer, often serve as “blue hats,” coordinating the response at command centers and storm damage sites. This time they were asked to come to Highland Park after the July Fourth mass shooting that left seven dead and more than 40 injured. IBDR operated childcare four days, while the Laechelts worked at the center set up by the Red Cross at the request of the FBI.

In the week following the shooting, more than 1,200 families were interviewed by law enforcement agents. Some came to share information about their experience, others came to claim the coolers, blankets, and bikes they had abandoned on the north Chicago suburb’s main street as gunfire rang out. The city shut the street down for a week afterward while detectives collected evidence.

Highland Park High School served as incident command for the survivors’ interviews. That’s where IBDR volunteers provided care for children while their parents were talking with FBI agents and Red Cross workers.

“People in the area sent all kinds of toys for the children, to give them something to play with or to hug,” Bev said. While Wayne was connecting kids with teddy bears and survivors with “ambassadors” who helped them with interviews and access to counseling resources, Bev managed the intake desk with a team of four. Friends she met from Northern Illinois Community Organizations Assisting in Disasters reached out because of their previous experience together. They had worked after at a mass shooting in 2019 in west suburban Aurora where the Laechelts live.

For IBDR volunteers at the incident command and childcare centers, the work meant 13-hour days, and for the Lachelts, another 90 minutes each way for their commute across Chicagoland. “It’s hard work, but we know we’re supposed to be there,” Wayne said.

“It’s a privilege when someone decides to share their story with you – they don’t have to,” Bev said. “That’s how I’ve always looked at it with floods or tornadoes. So when these folks who survived a shooting, who are so upset, decide to share with me, it’s a blessing.”

While the rest of the state looked at the tragedy from a distance, these Illinois Baptists saw the horror of a mass shooting up close. Ministry in its wake had high and low moments.

“Seeing a young boy smiling as he wheeled his bike out the door still decorated for the Fourth of July, things like that were high moments for us,” Bev said. “But when you see the parents carrying chairs or coolers, and you see the anxiety on their faces, you know where that stuff had been – that’s a low moment.”

“Some people want their property back, others want nothing to do with it,” Wayne said. “One man wanted his hat: ‘I’m just looking for my hat.’ Why the hat? I think it’s closure. They need closure.”

The FBI interviews are expected to conclude at the end of this week. Meanwhile, funerals for the seven victims continue, and a number of the critically injured are still hospitalized. Police arrested Robert Crimo, 21. No motive for the mass shooting has been determined.