City officials told residents Sunday during a town hall meeting their community was ready to start the healing process.
It was the first time since the deadly shootings on Thursday that residents could come together to ask direct questions to their officials.
The meeting started with a prayer.
“Heavenly Father, I thank you for this day and as we begin this meeting, I thank you for the love you have for us, the way you demonstrated that love for us. … You know the pain our community feels, you know the struggles we face ahead of us and I thank you for the leadership you have given us,” said Brad Burkholder, pastor of the Mennonite Brethren Church. “May your spirit guide us as we look to heal.”
The investigation process of the shootings is drawing to an end, Mayor David Kauffman told about 60 residents who had gathered Sunday afternoon in the commons area of Hesston High School.
On Thursday at about 5 p.m., an Excel Industries employee began a shooting spree that ended with four people dead, including the gunman, and many more injured.
“We are trying to move into the recovery aspect of this thing,” Kauffman said.
He spoke of city leaders, wanting to publicly thank the heroes during the shootings with a recognition ceremony.
“There were heroes within the building, workers at Excel who stayed longer than they needed to help their co-workers,” Kauffman said. “And, mostly we want to give our sincere condolences to the families who were killed or injured.”
Hesston has about 3,700 residents, but only about 11 percent of the employees who work at the town’s two largest employers – Excel Industries, and Agco Corp. – live in the community.
The mayor said he wants Hesston residents to reach out to all the employees who work in Hesston.
“We want those people to know that if you work at Excel or at Agco, you are still a part of the Hesston community,” Kauffman said. “And we need to embrace them and let them know we are with them in all kinds of ways through our prayers and recovery efforts. We are all one big community.”
During the meeting, many of the residents held “We Are #Hesston Strong” signs and white ribbons.
“As a community, the only way we are going to get through this are meetings like this and drawing on our faith,” Kauffman said.
City administrator Gary Emry said he could describe the past 72 hours only as “unbelievable.”
“It is the only word I can conjure up for this,” Emry said. “It is simply unbelievable. The response from tragedy from every agency involved and citizens in the community has been overwhelming and amazing. We have had more than 400 law enforcement personnel here, including the FBI, KBI, ATF and most other law enforcement agencies around the region.”
On Monday morning, Emry said, the city will assume command of the event, except for the ongoing investigation.
“Not only as a nation have we suffered far too much because of these senseless random acts of violence,” Emry said. “We now suffer as the next community to become victim to it. … Now is the time to recover. This community understands tragedy and devastation.”
‘That’s how you begin healing’
He called on Hesston to come together as a community. More than 150 years ago, homesteaders came to Kansas knowing the only way to survive was through a sense of community. A sod house or a log cabin could be miles from the next neighbor, but families watched out for each other. If one family’s barn burned down, neighbors appeared to rebuild it. The same went for devastation from floods and tornadoes.
It was in Hesston that today’s Mennonite Disaster Service began in 1950 with a picnic for two Sunday school classes. The MDS is now a nonprofit organization that responds to disasters throughout North America.
Through the years, Kansans have given in a variety of ways, always with the understanding that the giver may someday be a reluctant receiver. That process builds a sense of community.
Immediately after the shootings on Thursday there was an outpouring of prayers, emails, texts and support from people, Emry said, not to mention donations of food and money and volunteers reaching out to do what they could.
“That’s how you begin healing,” Emry said.
He encouraged residents to follow the city’s webpage, Hesston Strong Facebook page. Contributions can be made to the Hesston Community Foundation at http://hesstonfoundation.org.
Counseling and support available
Excel employees wanting counseling can do so by calling EMPAC, an employee assistance program, at 800-234-0630. People who have been affected are encouraged to attend trauma meetings hosted by EMPAC scheduled this week. Two sessions are planned Monday, at 10 a.m. and at 1 p.m., at Whitestone Mennonite Church.
Hesston residents were encouraged to put Hesston Strong signs in their yards, put the words on their Facebook pages and business marquees. T-shirts with the words will also be printed and for sale.
Kauffman gave Hesston resident Stephen Owens credit for the Hesston Strong signs.
“This all happened and I came home to my family all hunkered down and scared to death,” Owens said. “I went to bed, worried and I woke up the next morning and was driving to work, asking myself, ‘what can we do?’”
That’s when the idea for Hesston Strong hit, Owens said.
“It is about how can we pool our resources together to create something that immediately starts that rebuilding process. That’s what we need as a community,” he said.
“These are hard-working, wonderful people that had planned on going home that day. They didn’t get to,” Owens said. “So, it is time for us as a community to stand up. To lift these people up and do what we can. That’s what Hesston Strong was born out of. So, we created the website, the Facebook page, the Twitter feed. There are so many things we can do to spread the healing. That’s what Hesston is, the strength we have as a community to pull together.”