Going through the healing process for the Inland Regional Center employees
Newtown sends love to the Inland Regional Center.
SAN BERNARDINO >> Inland Regional Center executive director Lavinia Johnson’s eyes beamed as she talks about the outpouring of support from the public, but there were times during a recent hourlong discussion when she became a bit reserved.
Associate director Kevin Urtz was much more guarded, especially when it came to discussing the events of eight months ago, Dec. 2.
In fact, both said they made an effort to avoid interviews because of concerns that sharing the littlest detail will cause their 600 employees to relive that day.
Half a year from later, the duo broke their self-imposed silence to express appreciation for the cards, banners, stuffed toys, homemade cookies and all the sentiments of sympathies and well wishes that came with them.
They have binders full of handwritten notes and colorful children’s drawings from complete strangers, as nearby as Patton State Hospital and the Southern California Black Chamber of Commerce, and as far away as the Connecticut-based Newtown Action Alliance.
“We started receiving them in January,” Johnson said as she looked at a long conference table partially covered in mementos.
“The students from the Western Reserve School (in Ohio) would like to extend our … banner of support for your recovery of the terrorist attack on Dec. 2. As Americans we must unite, thrive and triumph over the dreadful acts of terrorism. You are in our thoughts and prayers,” she read aloud from a banner.
The regional center provides services to people with developmental disabilities. The Dec. 2 attack that killed 14 and wounded 22 was carried out in a conference room that had been rented by the San Bernardino County Department of Environmental Health for a training session followed by a holiday party. Federal authorities say the culprits, health inspector Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were radicalized Muslims inspired by the Islamic State.
Immediately after the regional center reopened in January, it drew attention for a different reason. It was now the site where hundreds of items were delivered, each one letting the victims know the nation grieved with them.
“We’re the location where it happened, but it’s really not about us. If it was directed toward us, then we kept it here,” Urtz said. But if the correspondence was for the county employees at Environmental Health, they sent it on.
That aside, the biggest message Urtz said he took from the care packages is, “San Bernardino is not alone in this.”
The staff took that to heart. “They were very happy to know people are thinking of them,” Johnson said.
Although the tragedy took the life of Larry “Daniel” Kaufman, who worked with clients of the regional center, the majority of the victims were county employees. Coping is different for Inland Regional Center employees, Johnson said.
“Healing is about not really dwelling on things,” she said. Last month’s anniversary, June 2, “was just an ordinary day, which is what the staff wants. It helps them know that we’re OK and that we’re going to be OK.”
Urtz added, “What we’re trying to focus on is providing services to our clients and trying to get back to as normal as possible.”
Working through tragedy
Both Johnson and Urtz briefly recounted that December morning. They were talking to each other outside the conference room where the mementos now collect when alarms went off.
“We thought it was a drill. We looked at each other,” Urtz said as his voice trailed off. The staff had recently gone through an active shooter training at the regional center.
“But we came in here and we could see the SWAT team and the helicopters, so we knew it was an active shooter,” Johnson said.
While most of the nation was glued to television screens, Johnson and Urtz said they initially had no clue that what was unfolding in a building just south of them was an act of terrorism.
As the SWAT team escorted them out of the building, for a brief moment, Urtz thought to himself there was no way the building would be opening the next day. In fact, it would be 32 days before they would be allowed to work there again.
Although the building was shuttered all of December, it didn’t mean the Inland Regional Center could just cease to function. The center has clients in San Bernardino and Riverside counties who rely on their services almost year-round — it’s closed only for major holidays.
By Dec. 7, the duo had worked with the IT department to convert a much smaller case management office in Riverside — which housed about 100 employees — into the business operations for the regional center. It also became the temporary headquarters for operations, and the conference room was turned into a makeshift station for the IT department, which used the space to set up 350 iPads for employees.
“Our staff work with our clients in their homes, in their jobs. For us to be there with them is normal day-to-day business,” he said.
But they would return to the main San Bernardino center to file the necessary paperwork. With the building inaccessible, the regional center was forced to quickly deploy iPads so they could input their notes. Luckily, about 150 employees were already participating in the pilot program to work remotely, Urtz said.
That meant bringing together small groups to the Norton Regional Events Center in San Bernardino to train them how to use the system, which allowed them to continue to do their fieldwork, he said.
On Dec. 10, only eight days after the attack, staff were allowed to return to the regional center in groups to retrieve their personal belongings. Most pressing on Urtz’s mind was how the staff would handle that first visit.
“They were apprehensive that day,” he said.
Protecting staff and clients
On the day the regional center reopened, Jan. 4, the duo conducted media interviews outside a chain-link fence covered in green mesh as employees and clients were greeted by a new security checkpoint.
“We provide services to people with developmental disabilities, and we don’t want to have a lot of people watching,” Urtz said. “They’re anxious enough and not having to be dealing with photographers.”
In the beginning, the site became a place where national media outlets set up and some members of the public came to gawk, while others paid tribute.
“We were kind of hoping the news would go away,” Urtz said with a nervous laugh.
Both Johnson and Urtz compared that initial visit in December to that first day.
“When they came back on the fourth, their expressions were much happier,” he said. Many told him and Johnson how happy they were to see their co-workers.
But there were noticeable differences, the most obvious the fence and new security measures.
Some of those procedures have since been scaled back and will continue to change as the directors see fit. Johnson said they are not going to put a deadline on anything just yet.
“We’re just being patient with all of this, because everybody is adjusting at a different time frame. We don’t want to rush things,” Urtz said.
Even the neighbors’ feelings are considered now when the center practices drills.
On the day of the shooting, the fire alarms were very loud, a “destructive” noise, as Urtz described them, followed by strobe lights.
The center has conducted two fire drills since reopening seven months ago. They waited about two to three months to even conduct a drill.
But now it is their practice to warn the neighboring business offices and homes and law enforcement.
“We wanted to make sure the next time that happened the people were ready for it,” Urtz said.
Counseling services were made available on-site for the first few months when employees returned. They also were available in December but off-site. Counseling wasn’t mandatory, but Urtz estimates 200 employees took them up on the offer.
That was scaled back in April, Johnson and Urtz said.
Other services included three pet therapy sessions, one as recent as late May, which included a visit from miniature horses.
“We’d love to go back to normal, and we’re heading in the direction, but we’re talking to see if everyone has adjusted. They seem to have adjusted very well,” Urtz said.