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A Uvalde survivor's parents explain their journey through gratitude, grief, and guilt

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This week, we've been bringing you stories from Uvalde, Texas, where a new school year is beginning. It's the first since the deadly shooting there in May. Classes have already started for some students in homeschooling programs and some who go to private schools.

JOSEPH OLAN: Well, we're just trying to relay to everyone that schools are beacons of hope.

SUMMERS: That's Joseph Olan. He's the principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School. Thirty students impacted by the shooting at Robb Elementary got scholarships to attend Sacred Heart this year. Our producers, Jonaki Mehta and Alejandra Marquez Janse, stopped by the campus on a recent weekday after school. But before they could ask Olan any questions, he quickly started talking about a topic on just about everyone's minds in Uvalde - school security.

OLAN: As you see, we have a lot of polycarbonate coverings on our windows and doors. They'll be replaced by steel reinforced frames and doors. Obviously, it's all ballistic-grade material.

OSCAR ORONA: Ballistic glass on, you know, all the outer doors and everything, and the fencing and everything. Plus it's smaller, you know.

SUMMERS: That's Oscar Orona, who later echoed what he knows about the security at Sacred Heart. His son, Noah, who survived the Robb shooting, is going there this year thanks to one of those scholarships. Noah was shot in the back and is still recovering from his injuries, but he was able to start classes last month.

O ORONA: There's much more control.

JESSICA ORONA: Smaller classrooms.

O ORONA: Smaller classes as well. So he'll get more attention, which I think he's going to need, and I think he's going to do well. That's what our hopes are, at least.

SUMMERS: We spoke with Oscar and his wife, Jessica Orona, on a rainy night in a library conference room. Noah sat at a nearby table during our conversation. Dressed in bright purple shorts and a black bucket hat, Noah mostly played his handheld Nintendo Switch. At times, he was watching and listening as we spoke. I asked Oscar and Jessica how life has changed for them and for Noah in the last three months.

O ORONA: For one thing, we no longer make long-term plans, because we're not sure how he's going to be feeling or if there's something that's going to trigger him that day. Even though he's been going through trauma counseling, therapy and things of that nature, there's still certain situations he's not comfortable with. Even at home, when it's just us three, you know, ranging from not being able to sleep at night, not wanting to leave the house. Any kind of noise startles him, things of that nature. Some people don't understand that because, you know, you see him right now and he seems like -

J ORONA: He looks normal.

O ORONA: But, you know, even when you just reach for his shoulder, that's - he just kind of flinches. Just to give an example, normally, at the end of the day, I go one way and she goes the other way and take our showers and everything. But now he's like, OK, who's going where? And can you wait till Mom gets out? Or Mom, can you wait for Dad gets out?

SUMMERS: I assume that is something that has changed since May 24.

J ORONA: Definitely.

O ORONA: Yeah. I mean, that was not the case before. I mean, it was - but now it's part of our life. I mean, we're concerned. I'm concerned. Some of the counselors have thrown around the term PTSD. You know, he was in there for quite a while. So now that the time frame, I think, is up to, like, 83 minutes or something like that where he had to lay there. You know, two teachers and several deceased classmates, and then hear everything that was going on in the other classroom. I can't even begin to imagine myself, much less a 10-year-old, having to go through that.

SUMMERS: As I understand it, Noah is back in school now, right?

O ORONA: Yes, he is. This is his second week. Yeah.

SUMMERS: And this is at a new school - right? - at Sacred Heart.

O ORONA: It's at a new school. It's at Sacred Heart Catholic School. And I'm hopeful that the district will be ready in two years. That should be more than enough time for them to, you know...

J ORONA: Do what they say that they were going to do.

SUMMERS: What would ready look like for you? What would the district need to do to make you feel safe in sending your child back to that district at some point in the future?

O ORONA: Probably the first step would be to have the fences up - even though someone told me that somebody already scaled one of the fences just to see. But I think it would be a deterrent - and to shore up their - the security, not just with police officers, but the system itself. Locked doors, cameras, IDs, things of that nature, so even if somebody does get through the police, they still can't get into the classroom. And again, it's not a knock on the school. It's a tall order, but at some point in time, it's going to have to be filled.

SUMMERS: You've talked about your desire to make sure that Noah has everything he needs to cope and to grow and to be able to live as full a life as possible. I want to ask you about the financial toll that this has taken on your family. I know you mentioned taking him back and forth to appointments. How have you been dealing with that? Has it been a strain for you all?

O ORONA: It has been, but we both work, and I went back to work...

J ORONA: We both went back to work the week after.

O ORONA: ...The week after we got home, because we know that we need to work to pay our bills. We have applied in some places for help with, you know, funds. There's a lot of money that has been distributed, donated to assist us and to assist the deceased and everything, and we don't see a lot of that because there's a bureaucracy that we have to deal with.

SUMMERS: What do you want people to know about what your family lived through that day and what you have been living through every day since then?

O ORONA: I think the biggest thing that we were dealing with was we felt guilty because our son survived. Amidst all this carnage and everything, we were asking ourselves, why, you know, how did our son survive? We didn't have an opportunity to mourn. You know, it's - sorry. It's difficult for me to discuss, you know, because...

J ORONA: I mean, I think first and foremost, what's gotten us through is our faith in God. I've just, you know - it's been bottled up, and I haven't really shown any emotion to let it out. Oscar has been more emotional.

O ORONA: I do, because I can't keep it in.

J ORONA: And again, only because, I mean, we have to be strong for him.

O ORONA: Yeah, and I think what a lot of people don't realize is that they say that we're the lucky ones. We don't feel lucky. We feel bad for our friends, our neighbors, our relatives that lost their babies. They just don't know what our fears are. Our fears are that our son - we want him to grow up and have a healthy, normal life, but we also have to prepare for that maybe that's not going to happen.

SUMMERS: What do you want the world to know about your son?

O ORONA: Well, unfortunately, he is not the same.

J ORONA: But he is a funny kid, always trying to make us laugh, a smart aleck, sometimes.

O ORONA: I think he gets that from his mom.

J ORONA: He loves Pokemon.

O ORONA: And very creative.

J ORONA: He loves art. He likes to draw and paint. So I think all of that, the way he used to be, will be one day, because we're not going to let this rule our lives and we're going to go forward and overcome.

SUMMERS: That was Oscar and Jessica Orona. Their son Noah survived the shooting at Robb Elementary School. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 2, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Jessica Orona as Jennifer.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.