UVALDE COUNTY, Texas — As the sun rose over Uvalde on a spring morning, there was warmth.
Large trees bloomed across the tree city. Outside of Robb Elementary School, there was an eerie sense of peace surrounding 21 crosses for the lives lost on May 24, 2022.
A new season usually brings a sense of renewal, but in a small city of less than 25,000 residents, grief still exists.
In the aftermath of the deadliest shooting in Texas history, Uvalde High School Dean of Academics Natalie Arias watched a shift in the beloved town she’s known her entire life.
“It feels very strange still,” Arias said. “I think that’s what’s hard.”
Arias, who attended Robb Elementary as a little girl, never imagined that the classrooms she said fostered a love of learning would become a crime scene.
“I think that there’s still a lot of pain,” Arias said.
Arias knew nearly all of the victims killed when a gunman entered the school. She formed relationships with teachers Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia and attended the same public schools as some of the victim’s parents.
Everywhere she goes, there’s a connection. Every conversation brings reminders.
“They were good people,” Arias said. “They were gonna be great people.”
Arias told WFAA that a year after the shooting, divisions run deep through Uvalde. While some want to move on from May 24, others are still hurting from the tragedy and fighting for change.
“I love Uvalde," Arias said. "It’s comfort. This is home, and the last 11 months, I’ve seen things in my community that I’m not proud of. This is a part of us now. This tragedy is a part of our identity.”
As twelve months passed, the small town’s grief grew. Flowers placed at memorial sites on Main Street and outside of the elementary school wilted and were cleared away. Dozens of heartfelt gifts went to families, city buildings, and the city library. Other items are stored in a Uvalde CISD warehouse.
A large collection of gifts, letters, and newspaper clippings will soon be archived at the city’s El Progreso Memorial Library. Memories from the dark day are embedded in people’s memories and stored in boxes.
“I don’t wanna forget, dismiss or move on from anything that happened,” Arias said. “But I also don’t want us to live in tragedy forever. I want our community to be able to heal together.”
Arias said she hopes some healing will begin when a new school she and the community helped design is built.
For several months, Arias has served on the community advisory committee, which represents the victims’ families, parents, teachers, and other community members. The Uvalde CISD Moving Forward Foundation sought the community’s input when it announced it would build a new school in Uvalde at no cost. To date, nearly 70 percent of the Charles Foundation’s goal of $60 million has been raised.
Uvalde CISD Moving Forward Foundation Executive Director Tim Miller told WFAA the foundation took its time in carefully planning the new school because community feedback was a critical part of the process.
Fort Worth-based Huckabee architects volunteered to design the new unnamed school, which will be built less than two miles away from where Robb Elementary currently stands.
“We’ve been very thoughtful with the community,” Huckabee said. “They’re the most wonderful people you would ever wanna meet. The entire project is the vision of the community."
The foundation recently revealed images and renderings of the new school’s design. It will have a modern look with updated security features and bulletproof windows, according to Huckabee.
Vibrant colors will fill every corner of the building with symbolism sprinkled throughout the halls, including a butterfly art display, which will represent the victims.
In the middle of the school’s library, a large tree structure will be built, representing the tree city. The two largest branches will be for the two teachers, and they’ll hold up 19 smaller branches - for the children killed that day.
The names of each victim will be inscribed on each branch, and Arias said the goal was to honor the victims in the new school.
Arias' twin children will be among the first to attend the new school, which is slated for a fall 2024 completion.
Holding back tears, Arias said despite the tragedy that took place, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
“Uvalde’s great place," Arias said. "I still believe it’s a great place to raise your kids. I feel strongly about that. I love it here, I love the people here. I’ve always said what makes Uvalde great are the people.”
That’s why one year later, as the relentless battle toward healing rages on, Arias and those working to rebuild what was lost recognize that moving forward isn’t possible without honoring the people who were lost.