‘A piece of who we are now’: Uvalde library preserves stories of healing, items donated after Robb shooting

El Progreso Memorial Library is digitizing items, will have them online and available to the public in the future

UVALDE, Texas – Two years ago, the nation focused on Uvalde as the heartbreaking news broke: 19 students and two teachers were killed by a gunman inside Robb Elementary School.

As the tragedy stunned South Texas and forever changed Uvalde, people across the nation sent in their gifts of love, anything to provide a sense of comfort to the community.

Cards from as far as Alaska and Australia, drawings from students, wreaths, crosses and banners — Tammie Sinclair, the director of El Progreso Memorial Library, said they’ve seen it all.

Now, they’re trying to preserve this part of history.

The library has partnered with Humanities Texas to organize and catalog these hundreds of items and start an oral history program.

“These are people’s stories and their hearts, and their ways to connect, even though they might not be from here. It’s the way that they’re showing, ‘We’re here with you whether we’re not physically there with you,’” she said. “This is a piece of them for our community. And I think that’s really important.”

‘A piece of who we are now’

Just like any library in Texas, El Progreso Memorial Library is open to “anybody that walks through the doors,” Sinclair said.

In the wake of the shooting, the library’s doors also opened for the thousands of gifts from across the world.

“And really, what would happen — so I hear, I wasn’t here at the time — that the mailman would back up to our back door, open the back of his truck, and then just give us boxes of things,” Sinclair said.

She joined the library as a student for her practicum three months before the shooting. When she became their archivist, she began organizing the gifts to “make sense of all of these items.”

Through the partnership with Humanities Texas, which includes grants, they are cataloging the items by categories. The project is made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and provides mentorship from the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin and Baylor University.

The library now follows a protocol, she said, that includes recording the person or organization that donated the time, and what that item consists of.

“Open a box and try to figure that out. And that’s really what I did in the beginning. As we move through, we got into more of the process, policies, procedures because we hadn’t planned for anything like this,” she said.

Items donated to Uvalde are cataloged at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

They started to record the items in a spreadsheet but they then realized their building was not equipped to hold the amount of gifts they were receiving.

Their technology wasn’t either, as their system at that time involved all local storage devices, like external hard drives.

Because one part of the grant requires everything to be online and accessible to the public, Sinclair said they began moving files into cloud-based storage.

“And so once we get everything transitioned over, it’ll be a live site that people can actually research by the end of this grant year,” she said.

Another part of the grant includes an oral history program. Sinclair said the goal is to build a sound booth and interview at least six people this year.

“We created a list of potential people to interview, and in that, we’re going to focus on the people that did show up. So the people that came here and they donated items to the library or to the community that wound up with us, people that offered programming here, and means to support or heal or just let people have fun,” she said. “We want to capture that and learn more about those people that showed up, and what made them want to come in and help and continue to help.”

The library wants to capture those positive aspects of support and healing, she said.

It’s a labor of love that not only preserves history but people’s emotions and reactions to the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.

The long-term goal is to become a regional repository for oral history “and then keep expanding regionally for the southwest region,” she said.

“We say this often that this is a piece of our history now, and we want to honor the lives that were lost,” she said. “And, you know, we also want to ... honor the people that showed up to support because they are doing that in their own way. And that is very important to capture that this is a piece of who we are now.”

Items donated to Uvalde are cataloged at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

‘A calling for me’

This is personal for Sinclair.

Sinclair and her family attended Robb Elementary School. She once worked for UCISD, and she knows some of the parents who lost their children.

Though she joined the library just before the tragedy, Sinclair said she was meant for this.

“To me, it was, you know, a calling for me to come in here and do this work because I want to honor them the best way that I can,” she said.

The donations vary in weight, size and material, but they are more than items to her. Depending on the day, she said an item can “hit her” differently.

She recalled boxing a set of wooden cutouts of the children and their teachers.

With this type of delicate work, she said, archivists have to consider the types of materials and dyes used because the gifts may warp or stain over time.

Sometimes these gifts can’t be placed in a box off the department store shelf.

“Some of these items are very unique. And that was kind of the issue I was running into with these wooden cutouts. And they’re beautiful art, you know, creations that somebody drove into town and had created them and donated,” she said. “I couldn’t get them to fit just right.”

Sinclair called the Harry Ransom Center for advice, and they said they would make custom boxes for the cutouts.

“When I brought them back, because they’re all flat and we had to build them and fold them together, it felt like I was putting them to bed,” Sinclair said.

She built a support that looked like a pillow and placed acid-free tissue over them.

“So it really felt like I was covering them up,” she said. “And I have young children also, and so just even though I had seen them for almost a year, that instant ... just hit me differently.”

“Every day is different, and I think that’s for a lot of these items,” she said.

The number of donations has dwindled in two years, but Sinclair said people continue to pour their souls into these gifts.

After the one-year mark, a person sent them 21 magnets with butterflies needlepointed by hand. Each butterfly is unique to each victim and showcases their characteristics.

For the girl who loved to run, Layla Salazar’s butterfly includes a ponytail with loose hair. Lexi Rubio’s butterfly incorporates a gavel, as she wished to join St. Mary’s University’s School of Law and become a lawyer.

“The detail in these magnets … somebody put all this time and effort and poured their heart and soul into this and captured so many different elements of each individual. It’s just it’s incredible,” Sinclair said.

Items donated to Uvalde are cataloged at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

One idea is to add a rotating exhibit to the library’s museum that showcases some of these items each May.

Sinclair said just like their history books and genealogy section, the library will continue to document this new piece of history.

“We currently offer services for the present, and we equip people for the future,” she said. “And so when I talk about that in the work and how important the archives is, that’s what we’re doing here ... ultimately it changes our course, but it allows us these opportunities to learn and to grow.”

Items donated to Uvalde are cataloged at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)
Items donated to Uvalde are cataloged at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)
Items donated to Uvalde are cataloged at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)
Items donated to Uvalde are cataloged at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

About the Authors

Rebecca Salinas is an award-winning digital journalist who joined KSAT in 2019. She reports on a variety of topics for KSAT 12 News.

Steve Spriester started at KSAT in 1995 as a general assignments reporter. Now, he anchors the station's top-rated 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts.

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