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Colorado grocery store reopens 11 months after mass shooting shook community

The decision to return to the store or not, as a customer or an employee, is ultimately personal.

BOULDER, Colo. (CN) — The new sign out front orients the Boulder, Colorado, grocery store in the Table Mesa neighborhood. The old concrete facade has been replaced with glossy pane glass windows and the interior redesigned with an abundance of emergency exits.

The Table Mesa King Soopers where 10 were killed in a shooting spree on March 22, 2021, reopened to the public on Wednesday, marking a day of progress for some and a trigger of trauma for others.

“Now through March we're really anticipating another big wave of people coming in,” said Karen Schweihs, manager of the #BoulderStrong Resource Center.

Since June, the center has hosted yoga classes and art therapy, neighborhood walks, acupuncture, massages, and therapy sessions for the sprawling community impacted by the mass murder.

“What a lot of what people go through are really typical trauma responses — panic attacks, having nightmares, difficulty sleeping, feeling overwhelmed with emotion,” Schweihs said. “The responses that people have are normal responses to a not-normal experience.”

The center easily resembles an art gallery with the 10 lives lost depicted as gemstones on a tapestry, as painted geese taking flight, as stars in the sky:

Tralona Bartkowiak, 49, ran a fair-trade clothing store;

Suzanne Fountain, 59, was involved in the local theater;

Teri Leiker, 51, competed in Special Olympics track and field and skiing events;

Police Officer Eric Talley, 51, was a father of seven and lost his life responding to the attack;

Kevin Mahoney, 61, was about to be a grandfather;

Lynn Murray, 62, was a retired photo editor who enjoyed running Instacart errands for those in need;

Neven Stanisic, 23, was a Serbian immigrant who serviced the Starbucks coffee machines;

Rikki Olds, 25, was a store manager with a bright smile;

Denny Stong, 20, loved motorcycles, model airplanes and being outside.

At least 300 people were at the store, in the parking lot or visiting neighboring businesses during the attack. Hundreds of first responders carry the weight of that day along with countless indirectly connected residents.

A memorial around the King Soopers supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, where 10 were killed in a mass shooting on March 22, 2021. (Amanda Pampuro/Courthouse News)

Many who worked at the Table Mesa King Soopers transferred to other stores or left the company altogether, but many also decided to remain and look forward to the opening.

“I didn't realize how much I missed my co-workers and how much of a connection I had with everyone until I got back,” said Conor Hall, an assistant manager first hired to work in the Boulder deli in 2017. After working at a nearby Broomfield store for several months, Hall transferred back to Boulder to help stock shelves and plan out schedules in preparation for the opening.

“Anyone who wants to be back is back,” Hall said. “If you don't want the store to open or you don't want to be there, you’re just not going to be there.”

Others eye the grand reopening banners with ambivalence.  

“I think they should open a community store instead with stuff for the community, with a farmers market and local artisans,” said Sarah Halperin, a lifelong resident of Boulder who works at a scoop shop around the corner.

The decision to return to the store or not, as a customer or an employee, is ultimately personal.

“The reopening of the King Soopers is something that's really important to that community,” reflected Michael Dougherty, District Attorney for the 20th Judicial District, which serves Boulder. “For some people, when that store opens, it is going to be really difficult, especially for those that lost loved ones.”

He added: “What took place on March 22 was, of course, a horrific and terrible tragedy for the victims, their loved ones, law enforcement and our entire community. We have to acknowledge that the trauma people suffered from that day will be with them for a long time. That's why the community response, which has been amazing, is so important.”

Amid the lingering Covid-19 pandemic, the March tragedy, and a December wildfire that consumed hundreds of homes nearby, many people in Boulder lean on and look out for one another.

“It's important for people to be very kind and careful around those who have experienced trauma and not to minimize what they've gone through, because it can be much more difficult than anyone could ever imagine,” said Ross Taylor, a photojournalist and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Taylor photographed 70 survivors and first responders impacted by the King Soopers shooting.

In addition to exhibiting the portraits at the Museum of Boulder later this month, Taylor intends to archive the stories people shared online.

“There's a type of reclamation that occurs when somebody poses for a portrait in the wake of an incident like this,” Taylor observed. “One of the people I photographed wore the clothing that she wore during the incident, for the first time since the shooting. It was her way of saying that she's still here.”

Members of the community add leaves to a tree of life mural painted inside the #BoulderStrong Resource Center, providing support for all impacted by the March 2021 mass shooting. (Amanda Pampuro / Courthouse News)

The American Public Health Association calls gun violence a public health crisis and the leading cause of premature death in the U.S. Just since Jan. 1, the Gun Violence Archive recorded 4,486 gun violence deaths, including 42 mass shootings.

Over the last three decades, Colorado communities have suffered more than a dozen high-profile mass murders across tattoo shops, a movie theater and several schools.

“Triggers could be something like a recent shooting, but it could also be something like a school lockdown drill,” said Jess Monda, director of operations at the STEM Center for Strength in Highlands Ranch, which focuses on those affected by the May 7, 2019 school shooting.

“Complex trauma is called complex for a reason,” Monda said. “Maybe someone shows up with what looks like anxiety right now, but as you start to unpack it, you realize, ‘oh this student was directly impacted by May 7 and hasn't processed it and is in fact anxious because they come back to school every day where that violence occurred.’”

Both the STEM Center and the #BoulderStrong Resource Center plan to provide support for the long haul.

“We know the impact of this is forever and we plan to be a long-term support for people,” Schweihs said, standing in the Boulder puzzle room surrounded by complete works of art, a half-dozen half-started pictures and many, many unopened boxes. “None of this goes away after one year.”

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