House of Hope
On the morning of April 2, Amish children from the tiny town of Nickel Mines, Pa., flocked to their brand new schoolhouse, some riding scooters, most simply walking. In some ways, the plain structure was like the old one—a single room, in keeping with Amish tradition, without so much as a telephone. But unlike the old school, this one's exterior is brick, and the front door is reinforced steel with a lock "to make it a little more secure," says one resident. This is also the only Amish school in Lancaster County with a paved driveway, says zoning officer John Coldiron: "Each one of the kids remembered the shooter spinning his tires and the sound of gravel moving under the wheels. Everyone decided the kids wouldn't have to deal with that sound again."
The town of Nickel Mines is doing everything it can to ease the memory of the horror that took place six months ago on Oct. 2, when milk-truck driver Charles Roberts walked into the old schoolhouse, stood 10 girls in a row and shot each one, killing five and seriously wounding five more before taking his own life. The old school was razed later that month, and has now been rebuilt with some of the more than $4 million in donations that flooded into the Amish community from all over the world. From now on, children who for the past six months attended a temporary school in a garage will have something better: a cheerful, airy schoolhouse with two skylights, plus 25 new desks (each decorated with a paper star) that face a teacher's desk festooned with a poster of a rainbow.
The community has named its school New Hope. "We want to start over, we want to go on, and we hope," says one community member. "So that's the name of the school."
The town has no plans to erect a memorial. "That's not the Amish way," says one resident. Many reminders are still present, including artwork, made by some of the children who died, adorning the new school's walls. Even more powerful is the presence of four of the girls who were wounded and are now back in school. Among them is Rachel Stoltzfus, 8 at the time of the shooting, who recently missed two weeks of school to undergo a second surgery to repair her jaw with a piece of bone from her hip.
Absent is Rosanna King, who at one point was taken off life support and returned home to die. She is alive and undergoing therapy, but friends describe her as being in a semiconscious state. "It seems she can't die and she can't live," says one. Still, "she took three spoonfuls of applesauce by mouth recently," says Mike Hart, a member of the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which administers the contributions to the Amish.
Virtually all the parents of the wounded and dead have undergone psychological counseling. "Some felt more of the need than others," says community spokesman Herman Bontrager, "but all used it to some extent." Some parents still meet every three or four weeks to talk about their grief, "and that's their best comfort," says one relative. The town has also found solace in three recent births among families connected to the tragedy.
Survivors and their kin have also been buoyed by the nationwide outpouring of condolences and support. "Tears came pretty easily when they read the messages," says Bontrager. "And they continue to use words like 'humbled', 'very, very thankful' and 'deeply, deeply moved.'"
And no one has forgotten the suffering of Marie Roberts, the 29-year-old widow of the shooter. Three weeks after the tragedy, she met with victims' family members. "It was real emotional," says one. Says another: "Marie just talked and talked. The tears were running." Roberts leads a weekly interdenominational prayer group every Monday, and is focused on raising her three young children. She also, according to sources, recently became engaged to Daniel Monville, whom she knew before the shootings. "She has said that she's not going to let the evil of the world take away her joy," says Rev. Kristine Hileman of the Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church in nearby Quarryville.
No one pretends that the tragedy's psychic wounds can be easily erased. "The deacons are always very clear that this isn't over and done with," says Bontrager. "They often say, 'This is hard work. We have to keep working on it.'" That sentiment seems to be widespread in a community that continues to find its way to a new kind of normalcy. "Now I guess the shock is wearing off. There's the realization that, yes, it is true," says a relative of Mary Liz Miller, 8, and her sister Lena, 7, both of whom died that day. Even so, on some days, she says, "I can just see them running around, planting the garden, saying, 'Oh, what can I do now?' Lena loved to come quietly to me and say, 'You didn't know I was here, did you?' I called her my little mouse."
Despite the lingering sadness, there were signs on the first day of classes at the New Hope School that it is living up to its name. During recess, kids played basketball and baseball in the schoolyard, and, at 3:30, some two dozen of them burst out the door to greet mothers waiting at the edge of the schoolyard.
As for the five little girls who are no longer among them, "The Amish feel strongly that they're taken care of," says one member of the community. Adds another: "We don't think they suffered, and that's a lot to be thankful for. We don't know how to word it sometimes. But we think the children are in heaven, walking the golden streets."
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