“One or two handshakes away.”
That’s how Riley Worth describes the degree of separation between anyone from the Lewiston area and the victims who died in a mass shooting last month
Worth was one of the speakers at a vigil last Tuesday, November 14, on the University of Southern Maine campus in Lewiston. He’s the student body president and a senior with a double major in Political Science and Economics. His family lives just a few streets away from Lewiston in the neighboring town of Sabattus. Their losses run deep.
Worth’s cousin lost his best friend in the shooting. His uncle lost two friends. And his father is mourning a co-worker.
Eighteen people died and another 13 were hurt in the shooting at two locations in Lewiston on October 25. The attack began at the Just-In-Time bowling alley and continued minutes later at Schemengees Bar and Grille. Police identified the gunman as Robert Card of Bowdoin. After days of searching, they found him dead from a self-inflicted wound.
The shooting brought national media attention to Lewiston. The coverage soon faded once the manhunt ended, but there is no moving on for the people of Lewiston. They’ll be dealing with the physical and emotional scars for years. USM’s vigil is one small step in the process.
“It’s been really helpful to have these quiet, calming events where we can come together,” Worth said. “Just sit around and talk to each other, share memories, and all heal in a different way.”
Worth had also been scheduled to speak at an earlier vigil on the Portland campus only a week after the shooting. He had prepared remarks, but chose to cut them short. By the time of the Lewiston vigil, he was ready to share more.
Both vigils featured a table with photos of all the people who died along with a stack of paper. Visitors were invited to share their feelings in writing, especially if they found it too hard to speak. The notes will eventually go to Gov. Janet Mills as a record of the community response to the shooting.
Emotional support dogs were a new addition for the Lewiston vigil. A team of handlers from Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response escorted dogs of various sizes and breeds. A few minutes with the dogs restored smiles to several faces when smiles were hard to come by.
Even before the shooting, USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College (LAC) was known to the broader community as a place for healing. It’s home to a free clinic run by the University’s Occupational Therapy program. The campus also hosts a children’s dental clinic through a partnership with the University of Maine at Augusta.
As Coordinator of Undergraduate Nursing Education and LAC Campus Director, Netty Provost sees an important role for USM in Lewiston’s healing process. She hopes the resources on campus can offer some relief for people who are feeling overwhelmed.
“We’re deeply embedded in the community because our students are, for the most part, local to the community,” Provost said. “We’re here to support and educate the people who live and work in this area.”
Many of the people who work at USM are dealing with the grief of their own personal losses. Among those killed were Joshua Seal, Maxx Hathaway, and Tom Conrad.
Seal was a part-time lecturer in American Sign Language, and a father of four. Hathaway, a father of two with a third on the way, had recently completed his Business degree. Conrad was also a father and the nephew of the University’s Board of Visitors Chair, Beckie Conrad.
President Jacqueline Edmondson offered her condolences to everyone at the vigil who lost someone close to them. Under her direction, the University offered a helping hand to people who were struggling.
Classes were postponed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Assignments were excused or extended. Regular updates by email listed several options for counseling services. And Edmondson made herself available for one-on-one listening sessions. She was happy to see how the culture of caring caught on across all three campuses in Lewiston, Gorham, and Portland.
“The larger campus community has shown me what USM really is, and that is it’s a caring community,” Edmondson said. “People are looking out for one another. People are reaching out to make sure their peers, their students, their colleagues are doing fine. It’s a really difficult time and I think that outreach across the University has been really incredible to see.”
Edmondson grew sterner as she addressed the country’s political leadership. She called on them to work harder to stem the epidemic of gun violence. And she urged voters who feel the same way to contact their representatives and demand action.
One change has already happened on the local level. In many college towns, campus seems to exist in a bubble that separates it from the wider population. Riley Worth has a foot in both worlds and he’s seen the gap close.
“My friends are from Connecticut and California,” Worth said. “They are townies for Lewiston now, which is heartwarming to see.”