Highland Park Generosity: How a Community Reacts to a Tragedy

Originally published on Headliners in Education 

The charming city of Highland Park, which showcases Rosewood Beach, and the Ravinia Festival every summer, has cultivated the image of a wholesome and upscale place to raise kids and enjoy a peaceful life outside of Chicago. Yet over the past week, its residents were left in a daze of horror, disoriented and traumatized.

According to Highland Park High School student, Stella Gottlieb, the city has changed in a traumatic way. It is now associated with terrible memories and will never be the same again. 

“You can tell that something absolutely horrible happened,” Gottlieb said. “Driving through uptown HP you see memorials in honor of the people that passed and you also see a lot of orange ribbons on the trees. It does not feel the same and I’m not sure if it ever will. I was driving right on Central today and I looked at the Ross Cosmetic Store and Walker Brothers. Both places I grew up going to are now associated with trauma that is shared with my entire community. It is so sad that this tragic event happened right where I grew up and lived all my life.”

In a community rally at Sunset Woods Park on July 9, hundreds of residents, allies and advocates joined together to honor victims and advocate for gun reform. 

Highland Park resident Sylvia Renteria has been fighting for change as long as she can remember, and when a mass shooting occurred in her own backyard, she couldn’t help but feel outraged. 

“In my heart, when I think about this tragedy, I don’t think of some demented young man. I think about how year after year after year, our Congress has failed to do anything about this rampant violence in our so-called ‘civilized society’,”  Renteria said. 

Husband and wife Dick Shriver and Sylvia Renteria attend the gun reform community rally at Sunset Woods Park on July 9. Taken by Marcos Chavez

Caryn Fliegler has been the Co-Chapter Lead for Illinois’ sect of Moms Demand Action since June 2020. She was also a primary speaker at the recent rally. 

Fliegler describes the group as, “a volunteer organization with about 25,000 volunteers in Illinois alone,” working to reduce gun violence through policy change, advocacy and community organization.

She described how the shooting did not deter her from the cause but motivated her to push harder: 

“I will admit to having my moments of feeling defeated,” Fliegler said, “but I know that I can’t let myself be defeated. I can’t let them win. I’m too stubborn for that.” 

For the next week, local businesses closed, police presence was amped up and a frenzy of national media crowded the city. But the community has persevered, sticking to generosity and friendship during the distressing times. 

The local high school has provided free counseling to anyone of any age who needs it. In addition, therapy dogs are at the school to comfort the residents and give them something to look forward to. According to Hillary Heller, a local preschool teacher, the therapy is relaxing and helpful. 

“It’s very inviting and intimidating. So, it’s an easy thing to walk into,” Heller said “I think sometimes people fear the stigma of therapy, right? But I think that the way that they’ve gone about setting it up and having the therapy dogs greet you, right when you walk in, just makes it super, super comfortable for everybody. And I know tons of people in the community who have adults who have gone, little kids to high schoolers,who have gone.”

Julie Gorden, an organizer of the therapy dogs, said they are having kick off events that anyone can attend to meet and cuddle volunteer dogs. 

Volunteers and their dogs gather in Highland Park to help residents suffering from trauma with pet therapy. Courtesy of Julie Gorden

“It’s given residents something to smile about and look forward to,” Gorden said. Hopefully, people will come to us as much as they think they need. We will be here for as long as needed.”

Gorden said the therapy dogs program has 120 volunteers and about 130 dogs. Highland Park resident Gottlieb went to the pet therapy and counseling at a local school. 

“I went to Oak Terrace Elementary School to pet therapy dogs with my two best friends who were also at the parade. It was very calming,” Gottlieb said. The dogs being relaxed made me feel comforted, and it felt good to get out a little bit. However, it was so heartbreaking to see all the younger kids who were also there and who had to go through the same traumatizing event as me, because I know how they are feeling, and I would never wish this upon anyone.”  

Community members are doing anything they can to help. There has been a stroller drive to help families who lost them at the parade, donations of squishmellow stuffed animals, HP Strong coloring books, yard signs, bracelets, T-shirts and much more. 

Hilary Stevens, a teacher and longtime resident of Highland Park, said she felt that she needed to do something to help. She started taking T-shirt orders with the phrase “Highland Park Strong.”They cost $25, and all of the profits go back to the community. Stevens said she has put in 500 orders. 

Hilary Stevens makes T-Shirts for community members and residents marching in DC. Shirts are $25 and all proceeds go to the community. Courtesy of Hilary Stevens

“I have a small personalization business outside of my home. So, I had posted about the shirts just because I realized that I was sitting and staring at screens for two days and just trying to process everything. And, I needed a way to feel like I was making a difference and to keep myself busy and to give back,” Stevens said. “So I had posted about the shirts. And the response I have gotten has been insane. Far more than I ever would have imagined– to the point where I actually had to reach out to a screen printer for help just so that I can keep up with everything.” 

A group of women have headed to Washington, D.C., joining families from Uvalde, TX, to call for stricter gun laws. Stevens made shirts for them as well. 

“I also made shirts for 17 women who are in D.C., and it was super last minute,” Stevens said. “But, they are wearing them loud and proud, which for me, not being able to go to Washington, at least I get to send a little part of me and, being able to support them in that way.” 

Michele Koul, who has unique pets like  chickens, tortoises and fish, has invited  parents to bring their kids to her house to visit the animals. She said it is a good activity that is not as loud as the zoo. Many people have already taken her up on her offer after only a week, Koul said.

“I was surprised because I thought it was kind of hooky, but I’m glad that I offered it because so many people reached out. I’ve had a lot of people wanting to come out. There are so many people who are wanting to do anything just to help others,” Koul said. “It’s what I’m hearing over and over from neighbors and friends. Money makes a big difference, but it feels good to physically do something to help others as well.”

Danielle Sirois, a college student and resident said that the community has come together in a way she has never seen before. 

“The community is in a state of grief and recovery,” Sirois said. “We’re trying to be hopeful, and many of us are. We’re demanding change around gun laws and grieving those we had connections to who were lost or hurt, and even just grieving the loss of safety in the town. One good thing though is that we know we’re all in this together. Highland Park has always been tight knit, but I feel like this has definitely brought us even closer together and made us appreciate each other a lot more.”