A month after attack, employees return to Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino

A month after the shooting rampage that killed 14 people, the effect of the violence on San Bernardino is still profound. But on Monday, two events helped push the city forward as it begins to rebuild in the aftermath of the second-deadliest terrorist attack in the nation's history.

Employees were allowed to return to work for the first time at the Inland Regional Center, and they found a very different place from the one they knew before the Dec. 2 mass shooting.

A fence dotted with memorial messages kept outsiders at bay. Security guards posted at every entrance checked employee IDs. And the building where the shooting took place remained closed, its future uncertain.

Even so, Kevin Urtz, the center's associate executive director, said he was glad to see employees return.

"I'm happy we're trying to get a little bit back to normal," he said.

Later in the day, thousands of San Bernardino County employees and others filled an Ontario arena to remember the victims and honor survivors and first responders.

"I always hoped and prayed I'd never be in front of an audience like this, talking about the second-worst attack in our nation's history," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, drawing comparisons to his own experience helping that city recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He echoed a call he made in the days after Sept. 11, when he asked people to visit New York City, telling those gathered on Monday to encourage others to visit San Bernardino.

"Their goal was to break us, their goal was to show they're stronger than we are," he said. "And you defeat that goal by coming out of this as a San Bernardino that is an example to the world of how strong people can be when they love each other, when they care about each other.

"You invite people to come here, come to San Bernardino, come here, spend money here. Make something good come out of this."

The county's Department of Public Health was holding a training session and holiday party at the regional center when county employee Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, opened fire. They were killed hours later in a shootout with police.

County offices closed at noon so employees could attend the gathering at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.

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Inside the darkened arena, choirs sang "Lean on Me" and "You'll Never Walk Alone," and Supervisor Josie Gonzales led the audience in a call-and-response poem titled "We Remember Them."

In addition to Giuliani, the crowd heard from evangelical pastor Rick Warren and other county supervisors. Gov. Jerry Brown attended the service but did not speak.

Warren, who lost his son to suicide in 2013, spoke about the long process of grieving.

"It's only been a month. It's still fresh," he said. "Right now your goal is honestly just to survive, just to survive emotionally. I came here today to tell you there will come a day that you will thrive again."

San Bernardino Mayor R. Carey Davis, who attended the memorial, said it "helps with the healing process."

"They spoke to their hearts," he said.

Tuere Storks, who works as a preschool teaching assistant for the county, said she had reservations about attending the gathering.

As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, she worried that she would be the target of anger. As a county employee, she worried about being the target of another attack. But the service was uplifting, she said.

"It helps us to remember to stay united," she said.

Twenty miles away, regional center employees felt the absence of Larry Daniel Kaufman. Many of them were used to starting their day with coffee from a shop he ran.

Kaufman, who also trained some of center's clients, was killed in the shooting.

"All of our staff knew him," said Donaciano Meza, a program manager at the center. "He was a very important part of our daily rituals.... We will all miss him."

Inland Regional Center employees coordinate services for more than 30,000 clients with developmental disabilities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. After the attack, many worked remotely using iPads that were distributed to them.

Lavinia Johnson, the center's executive director, said employees were happy to be back together in the office.

"It's been a very difficult time for us and we are very glad to be back at our IRC home," she said.

Wilson Akinmulero, a caregiver at a residential facility who works closely with many IRC employees, arrived Monday to drop off some paperwork.

He'd thought a lot about the long-term effect of the shooting on the center's employees, he said.

"I felt for them," he said. "If someone can just wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to work,' and then this tragedy happens. I don't know. It could be stuck in their brains for a long time."

Workers entering and leaving the center were greeted from across the road by Ron Pollakoff of San Bernardino, who stood smiling, waving and holding a sign that read: "I love you IRC."

Pollakoff, 41, has a developmental disability and is a client of the center. One employee visits him regularly to help with job placement and other needs, he said.

"I want to show my support. I know it's been a hard month," he said. "I'm just so sad that something like this would happen at a place like that."

Just before the lunch hour, a center employee who declined to give her name walked around the complex for exercise. "It feels good to be back," she said.


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A version of this article appeared in print on January 05, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Return to the center - A month after attack, employees find a different place" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe