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Still grieving, Lewiston residents navigate the holidays and moving forward

Several hundred people filled the streets of downtown Lewiston, Maine on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023 for a traditional holiday festival. It's been nearly six weeks since a mass shooting in the city left 18 dead and 13 injured. While some see these celebrations as a way to lift each other's spirits, others are still processing trauma and grief.
Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
Several hundred people filled the streets of downtown Lewiston, Maine on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023 for a traditional holiday festival. It's been nearly six weeks since a mass shooting in the city left 18 dead and 13 injured. While some see these celebrations as a way to lift each other's spirits, others are still processing trauma and grief.

Christmas was Joe Walker's favorite time of year. He was the essence of jolly, says his daughter, Bethany Welch, someone who knew how to make other people laugh.

"He had this elf costume he would wear to all the family Christmas parties, make my mom dress up with him... And then he'll be like Santa dressing too, because he had the belly to be like Santa," she said.

Joe Walker in his elf suit.
courtesy of Bethany Welch
Joe Walker in his elf suit.

Walker was the manager of Schemengees Bar and Grille. He was among those killed by a man who also opened fire at a bowling alley a few miles away on Oct. 25. Just three days before he died, Welch said her dad called her and they had a lengthy, unplanned conversation about her immediate life goals: graduation from nursing school at the University of Connecticut, buying a house and marrying her fiancé, for starters.

"He was just like, 'Yup, that sounds like a good plan, daughter. I'm so proud of you,' like all this stuff. And then, I don't want to go back on my word. He approved it. He was proud of it. He knew what it was," she said.

When she heard about the shootings Welch said she jumped in her car and drove for several hours through the night straight to Schemengee's from Connecticut, desperate for any word about her dad. His permanent absence has yet to hit her, she said. She got through Thanksgiving by distracting herself with work. But she graduates this month and then... there's Christmas.

Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
Several hundred people filled the streets of downtown Lewiston, Maine on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023 for a traditional holiday festival.

Even those who didn't lose anyone are trying to figure out how to get into the Christmas spirt and then how to move forward.

Several hundred people filled the streets of downtown Lewiston, Maine Saturday for a traditional holiday festival. It's been nearly six weeks since a mass shooting in the city left 18 dead and 13 injured. While some see these celebrations as a way to lift each other's spirits, others are still processing trauma and grief.

Matthew and Martha Agren of Lewiston showed up for the city's menorah and tree lighting ceremony wearing "We are One Lewiston" tee shirts underneath their jackets.

Martha and Matthew Agren at the Lewiston holiday festival on Dec. 2, 2023.
Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
Martha and Matthew Agren at the Lewiston holiday festival on Dec. 2, 2023.

"We became one town one horrible evening. It's the first time in a long time this town's been united over anything and I hope it stays that way for many years to come," Matthew Agren said.

The Agrens said it's uplifting to gather for occasions like this one. But other residents still aren't comfortable going out. As a result, Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Chamber of Commerce, said some hospitality businesses are down by as much as 60 percent. The chamber has started one of several fund drives to help the community recover.

"We're all just at different points in that journey," she said. "What I do see universally is a desire to find a way through... And I'm so glad to see the resiliency that has always been here in Lewiston where we're gritty and where we're an underdog people. And we know folks are rooting for us."

For bar owner Kathy Lebel, "finding a way through" will likely mean reopening Schemengees in a different location.

Bethany Welch, left, and Kathy Lebel outside Lebel's restaurant, The Station.
Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
Bethany Welch, left, and Kathy Lebel outside Lebel's restaurant, The Station.

"There was way too many good times and then with this happening the way it did, I don't think anybody can go in there," Lebel said. "The community is too tight and knows too many people. And to walk through there, I don't want that thought to be what's going on in their mind."

Lebel wasn't working the night of the shooting. But she said she still feels powerless about not doing more to protect her loyal customers and friends. She's carried that sense of unease to her other Lewiston restaurant where she now pictures herself like a flight attendant.

"Welcome to the Station Grill. Please have a seat. Take a look at your menu. To your right is an exit, to your left, please pay attention to the other exit. And it's not right but it's kind of how I feel. Like, I want people to be aware," she said.

Lebel isn't sure how she'll get by without Joe Walker whom she calls her "right hand man." But his year she's carrying on his holiday tradition of raising money for needy families. Walker's daughter, Bethany Welch, meanwhile, has amended the life plan she shared with her dad. After watching first responders in action on the tragic night of the shootings she said she's found her calling... as a trauma nurse. She's confident he'd be pleased.

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