How hundreds of therapists help thousands in the Highland Park community after mass shooting

Fire trucks storming out of the station got her attention, but the turning point came minutes later for one spectator at Lake Bluff's Fourth of July parade.

Audrey Grunst had walked to a friend's house and learned of the mass shooting in Highland Park. As information unfolded, the licensed clinical social worker and therapist knew her work was just beginning.

"I heard the helicopter during the manhunt - it was really awful," she said. "I knew there would be a lot of mental health requests for services."

For the past two weeks, Highland Park High School has been at the center of an overwhelming demand for counseling and other services.

Many have worked tirelessly during that time, but Grunst is credited with helping set the table for a community counseling effort that has provided assistance to thousands.

Hours after the shooting, the Libertyville resident would become a key figure in the early stage of an all-hands-on-deck effort to support community members after the shocking attack left seven dead and dozens injured.

Her first call was to Denise Herrmann, superintendent at Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128. Herrmann and Grunst are part of an effort to coordinate mental health support and prevention among various entities.

"I have this amazing and talented provider who wants to support your school and the community," Hermann later told her contact in Highland Park.

Grunst took it from there.

Coordinating with officials at Township High School District 113, Grunst offered to enlist 20 certified therapists to report to Highland Park High School, "I could deliver that," she said. It was just the start.

Volunteer licensed therapists who were part of a community counseling team at Highland Park High School. Hundreds of licensed therapists volunteered to help community members after the July 4 mass shooting. Courtesy of Kate Kelley

Grunst also helped coordinate and establish procedures for what became a pop-up clinical counseling team that, over five days, supplied 687 volunteer therapists and served 3,234 community members.

"It became a very small world very quickly here on the North Shore in a few hours," said Josh Novick, a clinical counselor and Deerfield resident who interned at Highland Park High School.

"The amount of community members who came in for counseling was staggering," said Novick. He didn't know Grunst before Tuesday morning but quickly became a fan. Grunst, he said, "created the opportunity for the rest of us to fill roles as needed."

"We were able to develop systems and invite the community in for long hours because of Audrey's effort to get the therapists into the building," Novick said.

District 113, which includes Highland Park and Deerfield high schools, began preparing immediately after the shootings to muster resources and plan for the days ahead.

Alesia Margetis, assistant principal at Highland Park High School, said she reached out to Grunst at 10:30 p.m. the day of the shootings.

"She had 20 therapists waiting for me at 9 a.m.," the next day, Margetis said.

Grunst's involvement with the community counseling effort ended after the first week and the work has since transitioned from post-trauma protocols to longer-term assistance.

But during those early days she tapped various networks from her counseling business, Simply Bee, to social media, and listservs shared nationally. At one point, Grunst said she was receiving 40 emails every 10 minutes.

"She really mobilized the therapists," Warner said.

North Shore District 112 and TrueNorth Educational Cooperative 804 also were part of the initial effort. There were logistical challenges beyond securing counselors.

Those coming for help were met at the door, checked in and matched with counselors to best meet their circumstances. "Runners" set up classrooms used for the 40-minute sessions and escorts got the visitors where they needed to be.

"There were a lot of people mobilized who stepped up to do whatever was needed to be done," said Karen Warner, District 113 director of communications.

In five hours on Tuesday, July 5, 60 licensed therapists served 318 adults and/or their children and students.

"At the end of the day, they said, 'Can you come back?' " recalled Grunst. She also was asked what kids needed.

Libertyville resident and licensed therapist Audrey Grunst with bags of Squishmallows given to comfort kids after the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park. Courtesy of Kate Kelley

"I said the only thing making them smile is Squishmallows. In three days, I had 2,000 Squishmallows donated," she said of the plush toy.

"It was powerful, innocent and healing. It was a small thing that made a huge difference. And that represents exactly what the community counseling-led center did," she added.

Highland Park City Manager Ghida Neukirch said the city is "incredibly grateful" for Grunst's leadership.

"She was instrumental in helping to ensure that our community had critical counseling services," she said.

Beginning Wednesday, July 6, the American Red Cross, the FBI, and Illinois and Lake County emergency management agencies opened the Family Assistance Center at Highland Park High School.

The FAC offered support and crisis assistance services, including spiritual care and financial help, separate from the community-led counseling services and with different programs and processes. Oversight for those services was assumed by the Lake County Health Department.

"There's definitely been a lot of effort from many different agencies and partners," said Emily Young, health department spokeswoman. "So many people have done so much formally, and informally."

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