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‘We are not afraid’: Waukesha Christmas Parade returns a year after deadly tragedy

  • December 05, 2022

killed six people and injured dozens of others. Brooks faced 76 charges, including six for first-degree intentional homicide, and was found guilty of all of them at the end of player Jackson Sparks, 8, who later died.

The beloved Milwaukee Dancing Grannies — who lost three dancers and the husband of a fourth — performed. So did the Xtreme Dance Team, whose members were among the most seriously injured.

‘Granny strong!’ A year after deadly parade tragedy, ‘Dancing Grannies’ will march again

Once again, the Dancing Grannies demonstrated their resilience

A banner with the names of the members they lost, along with large individual portraits of them, led the Dancing Grannies through Sunday’s parade route. Those members were Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson, Tamara Durand and Leanna Owen, and the husband of a fourth, William Hospel.

Time and time again over the past year, the treasured troupe — a fixture at Wisconsin parades for nearly 40 years — has demonstrated its resilience.

Nearly two weeks after the attack, the group marched in the Franklin Christmas Parade. They walked arm-in-arm, waving at the cheering crowds along the parade route. The names of the members who died were emblazoned on the back of their matching blue sweatshirts.

Their first performance back was in March for Milwaukee’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

For a while, member Betty Streng wasn’t sure she’d be well enough to perform for St. Patrick’s Day. She suffered a skull fracture and brain bleed in the attack and required emergency surgery. She has since fully recovered.

Streng and her gals gave a special performance at St. Luke’s in Milwaukee to honor the medical professionals who saved her life.

To honor their fallen, members of the group have been wearing a No. 4 on their matching hats, including the white, fluffy ones they donned Sunday.

A look at this year’s parade

The curbs along the route filled up fast on the sunny, but brisk afternoon.

Nikki Petrie, who walked with Waukesha State Bank this year and last, said that seeing the chairs set up for the parade took her back to what she witnessed in 2021.

“I remember walking back home and seeing all of the blankets, chairs, wagons — everyone just leaving everything behind,” Petrie said. 

Her decision to walk was made to honor those whose lives were lost. 

“I feel like I do, you know, owe it to the lives that were lost,” Petrie said. “I was lucky enough to walk away.”

Five minutes before the 4 p.m. parade began, spectators began to sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Word had spread through the crowd to sing as one united community, a way to ring in this year’s parade as joyously as possible.

“That reminds of that scene in ‘Elf,’ you know, where it brings everyone together and makes you feel better,” attendee Jerry Znidorka said.The parade — themed “Peace on Earth” — began by remembering those who died in last year’s tragedy and honoring first responders. A banner read: “In remembrance of the 2021 parade victims, survivors, families and first responders.” It was followed by a blue and white memorial float with snowflakes and the words “In remembrance” and “Peace to all.”

 ‘I saw pure unrepentant evil’: Waukesha parade attack victims share lasting pain at sentencing hearing

MORE: Darrell Brooks sentenced to life in prison in Wisconsin Christmas parade attack that left 6 dead

Changes to the parade

The first parade Waukesha held following the tragedy was for Memorial Day.

For the parade the city debuted new MVB3X barriers, portable devices capable of disabling vehicles as large as semitrailers from sudden and unauthorized access to key points along the parade route. Public safety vehicles were also used, including as guards for access points necessary for parade vehicles. 

Also, police now routinely create a perimeter that is cleared of vehicles ahead of any event.

Shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday, police said, the safety barriers were moved into place. People also noticed a security drone flying overheard.

The parade also had a new route.

The beginning and ending on Wisconsin Avenue now puts the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ at front and center of the event. The church held a prayer service shortly before the parade began and invited parade watchers to come inside to warm up, said Joe Cook, a local attorney and former Waukesha municipal judge.

This year’s Christmas parade was held two weeks later than it had been for nearly 60 years. That way, police and other critical staff were not fighting holiday schedules that could have made an emergency response more difficult.

Nov. 21 — the anniversary of the 2021 Christmas parade — was marked by a prayer service at St. Joseph Catholic Church and a gathering of hundreds at Cutler Park.

Reflecting on the past, moving forward

Last year, Znidorka, a mentor for Lad Lake, a Wisconsin youth residential care center, brought a 12-year-old boy he mentors to enjoy the parade and help him feel more comfortable in crowds. 

“At first, it was really fun,” Znidorka said. “It was a joyous day.” 

When the SUV came barreling through, he was in shock at first, unable to comprehend what had just happened. 

“Right away, the boy I was with, ran to the doors (of Burlap and Lace) and said, ‘Jerry, get in here,’” Znidorka said. “And then we were locked down in the store for 45 minutes to an hour.”

This year, Znidorka again stood in front of Burlap and Lace. This time, he was by himself. 

“As you can see, the boy is not with me this year,” he said. “He wanted to hold back this year.”

Over the past year, Znidorka confided in mental health professionals that have helped him prepare for facing the scene of the tragedy again.

“I wanted to not just get past it, but I also want to realize that sort of thing shouldn’t stop us,” Znidorka said.

Waukesha Girl Scouts leader Bonnie Stojadinovic had been helping out at United Church of Christ when the troupe was marching in the 2021 parade. After the attack, police sought her help, given her background as a health care provider in the ICU of Children’s Wisconsin.

“They asked me to help triage patients at the scene,” Stojadinovic recalled. “After it was all said and done, I came back, but we were in lockdown in our church. So I received a police escort so that I could go home and change and go into work at the ICU to help care for the kids who were being triaged from the scene that I had taken care of here.”

This year, she set up a table outside United Church of Christ on Wisconsin Avenue with one purpose: to call attention to canine officers who were “unsung heroes” in last year’s parade attack.

“(The Girl Scouts) recognized there were so many people who were praising the nurses, paramedics, firefighters and police officers, but nobody mentioned the canine heroes who were at the parade the day of (the attack) and in the days that followed, supporting the community and supporting the kids who had been traumatized,” Stojadinovic said. “So they decided their Silver Award was going to be dedicated to these unsung heroes.”

The Girl Scouts are encouraging donations through Dec. 20 for therapy dogs at LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, Southern Waukesha County K-9 Search and Rescue and the Waukesha Police and Sheriff K-9 units. An Amazon account called Waukesha K-9 Group Donations has also been set up.

Sarah Volpenhein and Sophie Carson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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