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Tom and Mina Popp dance during the Independence Day Parade along Central Avenue in Highland Park, Illinois.

Tom and Mina Popp, who attended Highland Park’s Independence Day Parade for the first time in 2022, dance Thursday alongside the Central Avenue parade route. Tom Popp said there was some “apprehension” in going back this year, but he hopes it will become a family tradition.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Highland Park unites for first July 4 parade since mass shooting

The common message of Thursday’s parade and a remembrance ceremony was one of strength, resilience and unity.

For many people, the return of the Highland Park Fourth of July parade on Thursday brought complicated feelings — mourning and reflection but also a willingness to move forward after the mass shooting at the parade two years ago.

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For 5-year-old Mina Popp, it was just a chance to experience joy.

“She’s just glowing right now after seeing it,” said her father, Tom Popp, 55, of Highland Park, who was present with his daughter at the 2022 event when a man opened fire with an assault rifle on parade-goers, killing seven people and wounding 48.

They were further west on Central Avenue, just past Sunset Foods, when the shooting happened, Popp said. He saw people rushing toward him making gun gestures and a high school band running toward him, terrified. That’s when the Popps sought cover and found refuge in a couple’s townhome, along with several others.

“It’s really heartbreaking, but one of the things Mina asked was, ‘Will we ever be able to go to a parade again?’ So we’ve been waiting for this,” Popp said.

Both the parade and a remembrance ceremony on Thursday sought to navigate those differences among the audience members — all in different stages of healing — while honoring the people who were killed or wounded.

“We come forth today hoping that we as a community can remember and honor the lives lost, the people who have been impacted forevermore through grievous injuries, and those who have been traumatized,” Mayor Nancy Rotering said. “We’re trying to provide discreet opportunities for people to be heard, supported and recognized, and also to help this community not be defined by this tragedy, but to lean into the resiliency of the community, and to support one another and to move forward.”

Though the city prepared for about 1,000 to 3,000 people to attend the parade, which wasn’t held last year, a noticeably sparse crowd showed up. An intentionally scaled-down procession of bands, city officials, trucks and tumblers made its way through downtown Highland Park. A new route avoided the block of Central Avenue between First Street and Second Street, where the shooting occurred.

Heidi Aloush, 63, said she wanted to be there to embrace the good times she had over the last 50 years.

“I grew up at this parade,” said Aloush, who said she used to place her chair in front of Ross Cosmetics on Central Avenue to watch. “My kids grew up at this parade. It just felt like I had to be here for myself and for the community.”

A social worker, Aloush said she provided emotional support for people in the community after the mass shooting.

“One of the beautiful things that happened in such tragedy is that Highland Park united,” she said. “I didn’t expect anything less, but strangers comforted strangers. People reached out to whoever they could to help and I just feel like it brought this community closer together.”

Heidi Aloush gets emotional while talking to a reporter before the Independence Day Parade along Green Bay Road in Highland Park, Ill., Thursday, July 4, 2024, two years after the Highland Park shooting.

“I grew up at this parade,” said Heidi Aloush, who used to park her chair in front of Ross’s on Central Avenue to watch the event. “My kids grew up at this parade. … It just felt like I had to be here for myself and for the community.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple, who walked in the parade, praised the work of medical staff, including her husband, emergency room doctor Brigham Temple, to assist victims of the shooting two years ago.

“I was just amazed by the level of professionalism and love and how everyone just came as quickly as they could and took care of everyone that walked in the door at Highland Park Hospital,” said Temple, the medical director of integrated medicine at Endeavor Health.

‘Somber,’ ‘hopeful’ remembrance

Temple also attended the intimate remembrance ceremony at Edgewood Middle School, which had musical performances, remarks by religious leaders and poetry by Highland Park poet laureate Laura Joyce-Hubbard and Sophia Mendez, whose grandfather Eduardo Uvaldo was among those killed.

“I thought it was beautifully done,” Temple said. “While it was very somber, it was also hopeful, and they made a call for peace and change. I think we really need that.”

Sophia Mendez, granddaughter of Uvaldo, delivers a poem during a Remembrance Ceremony at Edgewood Middle School in Highland Park, Ill. for the victims of the 2022 Highland Park shooting, Thursday, July 4, 2024. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Sophia Mendez, granddaughter of Eduardo Uvaldo, who was killed in the 2022 shooting, delivers a poem during a Remembrance Ceremony at Edgewood Middle School in Highland Park on Thursday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Among those who chose not to attend the parade or ceremony was Keely Roberts, whose now-10-year-old son, Cooper, was left paralyzed following the mass shooting.

“Truthfully, I do not know if my family will ever be able to attend another parade again,” Roberts said in a written statement. “When the very worst things happen to people, I think that there is a natural desire to want to believe that — eventually — they recover; that healing and restoration will occur. I used to be a person who wanted to believe that; I think I probably did believe it. … I know now that this is not true. That horrific day will live in us forever, Cooper’s life especially and irrevocably shattered.”

Roberts wrote of the “pain and suffering” she and others felt just over a week ago when the shooting suspect, 23-year-old Robert Crimo III, rejected a plea deal. Prosecutors said Crimo had agreed to plead guilty to seven counts of first-degree murder before backing out of the deal.

Crimo’s abrupt reversal weighed heavily on the minds of some of the people attending the parade on Thursday.

“Shame on him to terrorize and traumatize the community all over again,” said Aloush. “I’m enraged by the whole thing.”

Zoe Pawelczak, 30, who witnessed the shooting but now lives in North Carolina, told the Sun-Times that Crimo’s decision felt “intentionally vindictive.”

“Him changing that plea could bring a lot of peace to the victims and the families of victims and just provide us with some closure,” she said. “That would just be the least amount of care that he could possibly [show].”

Pawelczak said her father, who also witnessed the shooting, was eager to attend the parade.

“It’s a huge healing opportunity,” she said. “He wants to just overcome his fear and reassociate positive emotions with a historically positive event. I think he’s just trying to regain some agency over that experience.”

Paradegoers watch the Independence Day Parade beside a sign that reads, “Highland Park Strong” along Green Bay Road in Highland Park, Ill., Thursday, July 4, 2024, two years after the Highland Park shooting. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Paradegoers watch the Independence Day Parade beside a sign that reads, “Highland Park Strong” along Green Bay Road in Highland Park on Thursday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

But for many residents, the effects of the tragedy will never go away, Aloush said.

“With trauma and tragedy, you don’t forget, you just find a space in your soul to heal, always remembering the pain,” she added. “And I feel like that’s what’s going to happen in this community. They figured out a way to move forward, but it’s always there.”

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