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Uvalde librarian thought about canceling storytime. Instead, she made it a refuge.

Staff members at the Uvalde, Texas, library decided the community needed a safe space for children after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
Martha Carreon, a children’s librarian at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25, 2022.
Martha Carreon, a children’s librarian at El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday.Liz Moskowitz for NBC News

UVALDE, Texas — Martha Carreon, a children’s librarian at El Progreso Memorial Library, wasn’t planning to come to work Wednesday morning.

“I felt like it was going to be too much to look at those little faces,” Carreon said, referring to the children who come to listen to her read during storytime each week. “I didn’t think I would be able to bear it.”

A day earlier, on Carreon’s 47th birthday, she and her fellow librarians heard shots ring out from a few blocks away at Robb Elementary School. In the initial panic, before authorities revealed that an 18-year-old had killed 19 fourth graders and two teachers, rumors swirled about where the gunman might be heading next.

One of Carreon’s four children called her from the high school, frantic: “Mom come get me. Please. He’s on his way here.”

Carreon ran to her car and sped to the high school, only to find it on lockdown. Another librarian zipped across town in search of her granddaughter, a third grader at Robb. Hours passed before both women learned that all of their loved ones were safe.

Initially Mendell Morgan, the public library director, thought about closing on Wednesday, out of respect for those who’d lost their children. Ultimately he decided to keep the library open. At a time when librarians across the country have faced baseless allegations and threats of criminal charges from parents who’ve accused them of providing pornography to children, Morgan wanted to show the community what, in his view, a library really is. 

A refuge. A safe place. An escape.

Initially, Carreon told Morgan to count her out. How could she carry on after so much suffering? After fearing that she might lose her own daughter?

But when she awoke Wednesday, after barely sleeping, Carreon thought again about the children who come to see her each week. She owed it to them to be there, she thought.

And so, about 24 hours after the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, Carreon stood in front of a group of 10 smiling faces, struggling not to cry as the children giggled and sang along with her. 

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes — knees and toes.”

Carreon thought she was there to comfort them. In the end, it was the other way around.