'We are not afraid': Waukesha Christmas Parade returns after deadly tragedy in 2021

WAUKESHA, Wisc. — Sunday was a major milestone in the Waukesha community's healing journey: The Christmas Parade was held once again.

It marked a culmination of the strength, resilience, and hope the city has demonstrated over the past year.

And it went exactly how a Christmas parade should: People packed the curbs along the route, high school band members played tunes in Santa hats, children cheered and filled bags with candy, classic cars drove by and dance groups performed. There was the Grinch (several of 'em actually), and an appearance from the big man himself, Santa Claus, who was accompanied by Mrs. Claus.

Unlike the tragedy that was last year, when a red SUV driven by Darrell Brooks Jr. 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 October.

But an attack that devastating didn't stop groups — even the ones most severely impacted — from again taking part in this long-standing Waukesha tradition.

'Entire community is not afraid'

The Catholic Community of Waukesha, candles in hand, and the Waukesha Blazers Baseball Club marched on. Both groups had multiple members among the injured, including baseball 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.

Mirjam Haubert, who walked with Waukesha State Bank this year, recalled watching the 2021 parade unravel with her family. After the SUV plowed through and a young girl from the Xtreme Dance Team was laying in front of her, Haubert's motherly instincts took over.

“She was seizing on the street, so I put her head in my lap,” Haubert said.

Haubert sat with the girl and, with the help of a few others, kept her warm with jackets. When a police officer offered to drive the girl to the hospital, Haubert went along.

At the hospital, the girl fell into a coma. Around Thanksgiving last year, she woke up, surviving her injuries.

“I don't know what I would have done if she would have not made it,” Haubert said.

Haubert’s teenage daughter, who also attended last year's parade, still dislikes large crowds and decided to not attend this year's. But Haubert felt she had to come and walk with her coworkers.

“I have to force myself to go through this and show that we are not afraid and the entire community is not afraid,” she said.

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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.

In November, 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.

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A look at this year's parade

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.”

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."

Near the front of the parade, Waukesha Police Chief Daniel Thompson shook hands with parade watchers as Mayor Shawn Reilly waved to participants. The ReMax float, which again featured hot-air balloon flame-makers atop the bed of a pickup truck, was a welcome presence. “I wish they’d stop right here,” said one woman standing on the sidewalk as the warmth of the flames penetrated the crowd.

As the skies darkened, the parade route brightened with lights from the floats and watchers adorned with lights on the curbs. Parade-goer Kimberly Quartullo wore blue Christmas lights around her neck. Blue lights have become a symbol of strength and unity in the community.

She set up in front of Mama Ducky’s, just as she has for the past 15 years. Last year, that's where she witnessed members of the Xtreme Dance Team land in front of her. What played out before her was like “a silent movie,” she said.

“Because I am deaf, I did not hear much except for a big boom,” Quartullo said. Her hearing aid helped her hear the SUV’s impact and the screams of the crowd.

She's attended every Waukesha parade since.

“I came back to this one because, why not keep the community strong?” Quartullo said.

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 as guards for access points necessary for parade vehicles.

Police now routinely create a perimeter that is cleared of vehicles ahead of any event. The parade also had a new route.

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.

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 and 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 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.”

Contributing: Sarah Volpenhein and Sophie Carson, Journal Sentinel

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha Christmas Parade returns as community heals from tragedy

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