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In Uvalde, a woman in clown colors makes kids smile

UVALDE, Texas — One week after the school shooting here, locals and out-of-towners stop by a makeshift memorial in the town square to lay flowers, light candles and say prayers.

Under a blue canopy to block the hot South Texas sun, a woman wearing the face paint and bright colors of a clown calls out. Her apron says Bippy's World, the clowning business she operates in Houston.

"Would you like a snow cone, popcorn, cotton candy? Or do you want all three?" she asks 4-year-old Israel Sanchez.

He's with his grandmother Amy Nuñez from Austin, passing through on their way back from Del Rio, to the west of here. She wanted to pray for the kids. "Every prayer counts," she says.

"I have six grandkids, and it got to me," says Nuñez. "That's why I'm here." She points to her grandson. "He's the youngest, and he's getting ready to go to school, so, yeah, it's very emotional for me."

Behind the face paint of Bippy the Clown is Deturice Dunbar, 55. She's here in Uvalde because gun violence has touched her own family and she felt God called her here to serve.

"He told me I had an assignment to be here," she says. "When these type of things happen, the politicians come out, the news media — but nobody comes for the kids. It was such a tragedy. I just wanted to give them just one moment where they can come over and smile and be a kid again."

She's also here because she knows the pain of a parent waiting to know about her child's condition after a shooting. Her daughter was wounded in New Orleans in February — shot twice by the girlfriend of her son's father.

"She lived, thank God," she says. But the experience shattered Dunbar, whose grandson was in the car at the time.

"By the grace of God, I'm still here, because I almost lost my mind," she says, "because I wanted to know what happened when nobody could give me no answers."

She rushed to the New Orleans hospital where her daughter was being hurried into surgery.

"I said, 'Can you wait? I just want to see her.' One of the bullets had severed the main artery in her right leg. She had no feeling, no blood flow," Dunbar says, choking on her words. "I remember sitting in that waiting room just saying, 'God, please.' "

And so she dwells on the image of the Uvalde parents who waited in fruitless agony to be reunited with their children.

"They never got to see their child. And to know that your child needed you, and you wasn't there. ... Think about the mom who's sitting at home saying ..., 'I should have been there to protect her.' That's how we feel as parents. But we're not the Savior — we can't save the world — but we feel like we should be able to save our children."

For Dunbar, being a clown is her ministry: answering God's call to minister to "the young in age and the young at heart, and put smiles on their faces." And her calling to serve has been met by warm hospitality in Uvalde: A local woman has offered Dunbar a place to stay while she's here.

"When all everything is said and done and this community is still here, it's a lot of brokenness. It's a lot of pain. It's a lot of hurt," she says.

She wants something to change in this country, whether stationing a National Guard member outside every classroom or the automatic reporting of anyone who tries to buy hundreds of bullets, or ...

"I don't know," she says. "I just know that the answer is not to continue to do nothing."

She hands Israel a pink cloud of cotton candy larger than his head, and he selects a frisbee from her array of toys to take home with him to Austin. The smile on his face is enormous.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.