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Healing words

After the tragic shooting deaths a year ago at Umpqua Community College, welder Justin Troxel sprang into action, making hundreds of steel signs showing a heart in Oregon. He sold them to hurting residents of the area, raising $140,000 to help afflicted families pay bills and give them time off work to heal and try to put their lives back together.

It’s a heroic story, one of dozens in the Umpqua Story Project, which includes an expansive website, an on-campus display running most of next month and an Oct. 8 speaking event at UCC.

To the national media, the mass killing at Umpqua Community College was about more than horror and death, with attention given to the big controversy over gun rights, as well as protests amid a presidential visit to comfort victims' families, says project organizer Mark Yaconelli of Ashland, director of a storytelling nonprofit called The Hearth.

The real story is entirely different, say Roseburg residents who are unveiling the Umpqua Story Project, a collection of tales, pictures and interviews showing a caring community of thousands putting itself back together with countless projects to raise money and the help affected families.

Artists Isidra Castro and Chris Belville of Tapestry Tattoo in Roseburg raised money by donating their special UCC tattoos to raise money for victims. Artist Larry Safley did the same with “I am UCC” stickers. O’Toole’s Pub raised $10,000. Dutch Bros. kept the free coffee flowing. Oakland and Sutherlin High School students held a fishing derby, raising $10,000 for the stricken Anspach family. Abacela Winery raised $18,000. Tony D’Agnese played his trumpet on lunch hours for UCC students for weeks. High Priestess Tattoo raised $3,000. The list goes on.

The moving audio, pictures and written tales of locals can be seen at umpquastoryproject.com. The Oct. 1, 2015, gun attack on the UCC campus took 10 lives, including the heavily armed shooter, who shot himself after being wounded by police. Eight students and one teacher died.

“If someone lost a child,” says Troxel, “the money went to families, so they could take time off work, pay bills, get counseling — or for wounded people to get healthy. I’ve become friends with injured people. I have learned we are one hell of a tight community. The number of people who showed up to help do things was absolutely insane. I felt so proud of us, having friends and neighbors like this.”

Everyone showed up and pitched in, he adds. “We all took care of ourselves because we cared. I’m not one to boast, but we all did it. I hope the word gets out (to national media), but we don’t need their attention. Businesses would donate lunch. Home Depot donated supplies. Steel Outlet donated steel. About every manufacturing company contributed, everywhere you turned.”

Over the past year, with funding from the Ford Family Foundation of Roseburg and the Douglas County Museum, Yaconelli and The Hearth crew trained volunteers in compassionate listening, interviewing, audio technology and digital photography, compiling a comprehensive history of community teamwork — not unlike how Roseburg recovered from the accidental leveling of half its downtown by a dynamite truck explosion in 1959.

The Hearth “seeks to deepen relationships, cultivate compassion and address suffering in local communities through the practice of personal storytelling,” says its website. Fifteen volunteers set up tables in coffee shops, libraries and schools to gather stories from citizens and first responders.

“The suffering, horror and death will be recognized,” Yaconelli says, “but the other story is the kindness, the community pulling together. We’re mirroring it back to them, to recall the goodness that took place. It was all regular folks drawn together to do something to help.”

The audio clips are especially moving. Susan Rochester, curator of the project, recalls how she got a text and immediately loaded her truck with paints, then Facebooked everyone to come make art with her. She is painting a mural to commemorate the victims.

“When I saw people hugging each other, there was joy,” says therapist Louis Darling, who donated hundreds of counseling calls to the UCC community. “That doesn’t happen when you stay in your home. Turn toward, not away. Offer yourself. You’ll feel better.”

Troxel says he’d never trusted national news, but “I never realized how bad it was until the shooting. It was disgusting, some of the worst coverage I ever saw. They would take my quotes and chop them up to relate to the protesting. None of us from Roseburg protested. They were from the coast and up and down I-5. It sickened me that news people would make it look like our community doing that.”

The live event will be at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, at UCC Jacoby Auditorium in Roseburg. The project showcases 250 stories gathered over 100 hours. Storytellers include Troxel, Kelly Wright, Casey O’Toole, Susan Rochester and Dustin Cosby. Live music will be performed by Amelia Davis and Kim Blossom. A $3 suggested donation will benefit the UCC Strong Fund.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Mark Yaconelli of Ashland is helping people affected by last year's mass shooting at Umpqua Community College tell their stories. Courtesy photo