After 88 days, girl and her small town can start healing
After the murder of her parents, 88 days in captivity and an escape that drew the attention of the nation, how does a 13-year-old begin to heal? And how does a small town such as Barron recover?
Those questions have drawn experts and resources from around the country to the city of fewer than 4,000 people in northwest Wisconsin since Jayme Closs vanished three months ago.
For 88 days, the community worked to remain optimistic that despite long
odds, Jayme would come home. Students and teachers wore green ribbons to school, lit up a tree of hope, snuggled with therapy dogs and held concerts.
Thursday, Jayme escaped a house in Gordon where authorities said she’d been held captive by the kidnapper who killed her parents. Despite the harrowing details sure to come, the people who never gave up hope are resolute.
“I’m told that the kiddo woke up smiling,” said Diane Tremblay, superintendent of Barron Area School District, who met with Jayme’s family Saturday morning. “We were all talking about the courage Jayme showed everyone and the impact she’s had on the nation.”
Tremblay knows there will be hard work ahead. She changed her mind about the outsiders who visited Barron, who called and emailed with advice. At first, it seemed intrusive. She had done the training and knew how to handle crises.
“I was a little uncomfortable with it,” Tremblay said. “But once I realized there’s no manual for this type of crisis, I dropped that mama bear thing and said, ‘OK, let’s let these people take a look at what’s going on.’ ”
One of those people was Michele Gay. She lost her 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, six years ago in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. A group she co-founded, Safe and Sound Schools, helps districts prepare for and respond to crises.
“One of the things we know all too well is it’s very difficult to think clearly and attend to the important details midcrisis,” Gay said. “It’s incredibly helpful to have some clear heads, fresh eyes and trusted relationships.”
When Jayme vanished, Safe and Sound Schools tapped its network to assemble a team of six experts to advise the district. One of the first recommendations was to bring in dogs from the Wausau Police Department to provide therapeutic cuddles for students.
“There’s tremendous value in that,” Tremblay said. “I wouldn’t have thought of that. It wasn’t in the toolbox.”
It’s too soon to say whether or when Jayme will return to Riverview Middle School, but Tremblay wants to be ready for it – “if we are lucky enough to have that child in the hallways,” she said.
“She’s a loyal friend, a sweetheart to have in the classroom, the kid every teacher wants in the front row,” Tremblay said.
For Jayme, experts said, the first step will be finding a new sense of normalcy, routine and security with the help of family. Supporters set up a fundraising page to help them.
“This is as horrific a trauma as any child could experience,” said Dimitri Topitzes, who teaches trauma counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He said Jayme will need time with family who can “shower her with affection, love and safety.”
Adrianne Walschinski, who oversees outpatient mental health services at SaintA, said safe relationships are the most vital component of healing from trauma. SaintA is a Milwaukee-based organization that provides social and behavioral health services.
Walschinski said it’s common for trauma victims to be on high alert, to have trouble eating and sleeping regularly and to be triggered by certain scents or sounds that remind them of the event. She said it will be a challenge to find a balance between making sure Jayme has the support she needs while allowing her to feel normal.
“Thinking about all the intimate details that will be shared, that’s so hard for a 13-year-old,” Walschinski said. “There’s going to come a time where she’ll want to be a typical teen and not be treated differently than other teens.”
Tremblay is thinking about how to prepare students for greeting Jayme in a way that isn’t overwhelming.
“We don’t want the kids uncomfortable,” Tremblay said. “We’ll have to talk about what to ask, what not to ask. And continue to keep our pulse on the kids.”
She wants to do everything at Jayme’s pace.
“She’s a hero,” Tremblay said. “The mission of our district is for kids to reach their dreams and make a positive impact, and this kid has made a positive impact on the world already. We’ve been talking about hope, love and prayers for 88 days.
“What else would the kid ever have to conquer more challenging than what she just did? We’re so happy she’s home.”
After escaping captivity, Jayme Closs was reunited with her aunt, Jennifer Smith, and her dog.