Amid the tragedies, moments of light in 2018

Associated Press

The cities of Parkland, Paradise and Pittsburgh became synonymous with tragedy in 2018, a year when the nation seemed to careen from one deadly horror to another. Yet in every calamity, there were people who showed their humanity, their selfless strength and their sense of duty amid the suffering.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said no class in any seminary could have prepared anyone for the role he was thrust into.

Myers was leading Shabbat services when gunfire erupted inside his Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27. After helping others to safety, Myers turned back and raced up the stairs to a choir loft, where he called 911. Seven members of his Tree of Life congregation and four others in the building were killed.

As the Jewish community grieved, Myers took a leading role during public memorials and presided over seven funerals in the space of less than a week.

“I really had two choices when it came down to how to respond,” Myers said. “One of them was … curl up with a bottle of scotch. The second choice was to act upon it. I chose to act upon it.”

His response inspired Tree of Life congregants, including retired psychiatrist Joe Charny, 90.

“There’s no question that he’s been super, and it’s hard to imagine that anybody could have done a better job,” Charny said. “He has the right touch. He has maintained through all this a sense of humor. I don’t know how he’s done that.”

Myers has vowed to no longer use the word “hate.”

“To me, that’s the mission that has come out of this, that for 11 beautiful people to have not died in vain,” the rabbi said. “The conversation about hate speech in America must be elevated and it must gain attention, because that type of speech leads to action such as what happened at my synagogue.”

A critical task

A wildfire that swept through on Nov. 8 all but obliterated Paradise, California, once home to 27,000 people. To find and identify the 86 dead, authorities had to call on searchers like Craig Covey to gather up the remains.

“It was apocalyptic up there,” Covey said several weeks after returning home to Costa Mesa, California.

Covey’s team is deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to disasters across the country and beyond. Earlier this year, his team helped rescue an exhausted 82-year-old man who had been flushed out of his car by floodwaters and pinned in some trees amid Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.

Paradise was different, but brought rewards of its own.

“We weren’t shaking hands with people,” Covey said. “But we were making a difference for folks, for closure, who are missing their families.”

Dogs in tune with humans

When classes resumed following the massacre of 17 students and staff at Parkland, Florida’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, several therapy animal groups helped out. The dogs — and in some cases, donkeys and horses — went into the cafeteria and classrooms. They were also at vigils and marches.

Fernandez’s organization sent 35 therapy dogs and their handlers into the school. All of the animals were trained and selected for their calm, happy demeanor.

Some Parkland students specifically asked for a dog to shadow them during classes, saying that the animals’ presence eased the stress of returning to a place where such a horrible thing happened.

Ten months after the tragedy, a dozen dogs still show up at the school every day.

‘In my neighborhood’

It was known as the Wall of Forgotten Natives, a sprawling homeless encampment that sprouted along a Minneapolis freeway sound barrier over the summer.

University of Minnesota medical and law student Kristina Tester grew up nearby and began helping at the camp as part of an elective rotation for her degree. She began doing clean-needle exchanges and continued on as a volunteer for months after her assignment ended.

“There’s really not much of a difference between myself and any of the residents who are here at the homeless camp, other than sort of luck of the draw and geographic-political lottery,” she said.

The 26-year-old Tester said she did it because “it’s in my neighborhood.”