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School shooting survivor gifts Uvalde kids stuffed animals on first day back in class

Ella Klimowicz, 18, of Oxford, Michigan, arranged a fundraiser to give kids in Uvalde, Texas a stuffed animal on their desk for the first day of school. (Carrie Klimowicz)
Ella Klimowicz, 18, of Oxford, Michigan, arranged a fundraiser to give kids in Uvalde, Texas a stuffed animal on their desk for the first day of school. (Carrie Klimowicz)

School starts in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, and for parents, students and teachers it’s a difficult day. Only a few months have passed since a gunman entered Robb Elementary School and shot 19 students and two teachers back in May.

Ella Klimowicz knows how they’re feeling. The 18-year-old from Michigan survived a mass shooting at her own school, Oxford High School, back in November. She raised $24,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to purchase a stuffed wildcat — Oxford’s mascot — for every Uvalde student inside the school during the shooting.

Ella Klimowicz traveled to Uvalde last week with her mother, Carrie Klimowicz, to hand place the stuffed animals and meet with families. (Carrie Klimowicz)

Ella and her mother, Carrie Klimowicz, took time to place an animal on every child’s desk along with a handmade card. They also met with teachers who were prepping their classrooms and swapped stories.

“I think a lot of them appreciated another community having the same story and comparing what happened to them and what happened to us,” Ella says. “Sometimes it’s good to talk about that stuff with people that understand.”

Ella was 17 when a shooter invaded her school. Knowing the Robb Elementary kids are much younger than her, Ella says she can’t imagine being that young and losing her innocence.

After the shooting at Oxford, Ella struggled to remember everything that had happened. But talking to others helped and made the events of that day easier to process. Like Uvalde students, Ella eventually had to return to school.

Ella Klimowicz knows what it’s like to go back to school after a shooting. She survived a shooting at her high school where four students were killed last November. She’s a college freshman now. (Carrie Klimowicz)

“It was unimaginably very, very hard,” she recalls. “Every single day, my goal would be to just stay in the building. If that’s in the counseling office, a therapy room, it didn’t matter. If I was in the building, I was proud of myself at the end of the day.”

For Carrie Klimowicz, it was difficult at first to be away from her daughter after the shooting. She remembers wanting to keep her daughter in a bubble, safe from external factors. Ten months later, things have improved, she says. As Oxford’s new school year starts, the Nov. 30 anniversary of the shooting looms.

“It’s kind of a tricky time starting the school year for the community of Oxford, for the kids, for the students, for the staff,” Klimowicz says. “It’s better, but still difficult right now.”

As a parent, Klimowicz says she no longer sweats the small stuff, finding it more important if her children are safe, happy and healthy rather than focusing on grades or other aspects of schooling that seem trivial compared to what her daughter went through last year.

“We’re all just maneuvering it,” she says. “Nobody expected this and nobody quite knows how they’re going to get through it and make sure that their kids are okay. So we’re kind of just muddling through it and trying to rely on resources like therapy and things like that to help with it.”

But the pride she feels for her daughter is immense.

“This summer was supposed to be the summer before [Ella] starts college,” Klimowicz says. “She really devoted a lot of her summer to organizing this. Her dad and I are really proud of her.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.