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Free counseling helps Sutherland Springs survivors on path to healing

Crosses placed near First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs after deadly shooting (SBG San Antonio)

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX – Free counseling services are helping survivors of the Sutherland Springs mass shooting heal from unimaginable loss.

In a matter of minutes, 26 people were killed in the church massacre. Nine of them were part of Sarah Slavin’s family.

"It was my mom and my dad, my brother, my sister-in-law, and three nieces and a nephew and an unborn baby,” she says.

Michelle Shields was the gunman’s mother-in-law, and one of his possible targets.

"The devil got inside that person,” she says.

Shields didn’t go to church that day.

"My mother did go, and she was watching the pastor's daughter and both of them were victims,” she says.

As grief gripped the small town, a team of counselors from The Ecumenical Center sat by survivors’ sides.

"We pledge that we're here to stay,” says Mary Beth Fisk, the center’s CEO and executive director.

The need is still so great, she says the group’s efforts have now expanded to three counseling centers.

"At the six-month mark, we noticed that some who hadn't come for counseling were getting to the point where reality of this loss is setting in,” Fisk explains.

Some sessions are faith-based, while others are secular. There are also specialized playtime therapies for children.

"A child will absorb the feelings of a parent. They can be somewhat silent grievers,” Fisk says.

After the shooting, Slavin didn’t want to let her daughter out of her sight.

"When I came in, I couldn't think,” she remembers. "We had separation anxiety really bad."

The counseling’s given them tools to work through it.

Meantime, Shields was having trouble remembering things.

"I know I couldn't do it on my own,” she says. "I wouldn't be able to do my ordinary daily chores without the help I have here."

Healing doesn’t happen overnight. Both women say they’re moving through it, and encouraging fellow survivors to attend counseling.

"I actually carry a [business] card with me, either in my purse or pocket or diaper bag,” Slavin says. “They've helped me. Maybe they can help you. Just try."

"We lost a lot, yes,” Shields adds. “But we're thankful for the ones that are still here."

The Ecumenical Center’s counseling is free of charge to anyone impacted by the church massacre, if you would like to help the efforts in Wilson County, call (210) 616-0885 or visit the center’s website.

If you live in Wilson County and are in need of services, call (830) 496-1143.

By EMILY BAUCUM

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