HESSTON, Kansas – It was five weeks ago Thursday that tragedy stuck Hesston, Kansas. The shootings at the Excel Industries plant, and leading up to them — the shootings in Newton — changed the small Kansas community.
Soon after, however, the focus changed from the Hesston tragedy to “Hesston Strong,” as residents would continue to prove that in the weeks to come.
Their strength is being helped by groups who are sadly familiar with pain and loss.
Many people in Hesston say it is hard to believe it’s already been five weeks since tragedy struck the town. But, everyone KSN talked with Thursday said they’ve felt a great deal of support, none more evident perhaps than the brightly colored “Stars of Hope” that line the street leading to the Excel Industries plant where the shootings occurred.
“It just feels more, it feels warming that a lot of people care,” said Bradley Gray, an Excel employee.
For Gray, it wasn’t your typical first day on the job, and it’s been difficult for him since the deadly tragedy shook the small town of Hesston.
Returning to Excel, Gray said, wasn’t easy.
“A little nervous to be back,” Gray said. “Every little sound that sounded like a bang made everybody spook…”
It is undeniable, the community as a whole has been changed.
“It’s been really difficult to process all of this,” said Susan Lamb, the director of the Hesston Community Foundation. “It’s hard not to let it shape you. We don’t want it to be what we’re known for. If anything, we want to be known for how we recover.”
So, Hesston is moving forward with its strength shown in store windows… “#HesstonStrong” the signs say. A reflection of the attitude of the community as a whole.
“It’s exciting to drive down the street and see signs,” said Hesston resident, Cindy Loucks. “It’s exciting to go to Newton and see billboards and signs posted supporting us. That means a lot to us, a lot to the community.”
Some of those Stars of Hope, those small but important notes of encouragement, mentioned earlier, were sent in by people in San Bernardino, California, a town still recovering from its own tragedy.
“It does feel comforting and it feels good that there are caring people that ain’t in the town, or in the vicinity,” said Bradley Gray.
And, for those still too traumatized to return to work at Excel Industries, Gray is still processing the tragedy, too. And he’s glad the pace at work has been kinder.
“We lost quite a little bit of people,” Gray said. “Work is kinda slow, but now it’s pickin’ up.”
Just as importantly, Susan Lamb says the recovery in Hesston has been slow, but it’s been steady.
“We want people to know that we’re here for the long-term. This is a very slow and deliberate recovery and there are resources out there,” Lamb said.
“I am proud to be an Excel employee, and I do typically plan to stay an Excel employee as long as I can,” said Gray.
Gray said the Excel family has provided a lot of support, bringing in counselors for those who ask to talk to someone.
For more information about the Hesston Community Foundation, visit their website: hesstonfoundation.org.
To donate and contribute to the fund established to support those impacted by the tragedy that occurred on February 25th, the Hesston Community Foundation asks that you memo your gift with “Community Response.”