In its long history, Dayton’s had its share of tragedies and hardships.
But there’s never been a year quite like 2019, with its triple-whammy of a hate group rally, a natural disaster and the worst massing shooting in state history.
However, many people say that the way the community responded to the “year from hell” was beautiful and inspiring, and that 2019 will be remembered not just for the traumatic events, but also for the kindness, compassion, generosity and heroic acts that grew out of them.
Today marks the start of a new year, but many community members believe the goodwill and community spirit of 2019 will live on because people feel more connected to Dayton after everything it has gone through.
“I use the term ‘grit,’ and I think we definitely have that,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. “Grit forges bonds and togetherness, and that’s the way Dayton is.”
“Sometimes I think a jolt like what happened in 2019 will connect people to their community more than they were before,” she said.
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White supremacists rallied downtown. Mother Nature ravaged large swaths of the community. A gunman in the Oregon District murdered nine people and wounded many others.
In response, hate speech was drowned out by chants of unity. People immediately banded together to clean up damaged neighborhoods and start the rebuilding process.
The community responded to terrible violence with a massive outpouring of love and support.
There were countless acts of kindness and compassion.
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Thousands of people, businesses and organizations donated $3.8 million to victims of the mass shooting in the Oregon District and their surviving family members.
Thousands also donated to the Greater Dayton Disaster Relief Fund, which was created in response to the Memorial Day tornadoes. The fund has raised more than $1.8 million, with donations still rolling in.
Some people gave blood. Others passed out water and goods to displaced families. Many people donated their time to remove debris and help rebuild damaged homes.
Dayton Inspires, in conjunction with the city of Trotwood and the Living City Project, collected more than 5,000 donated toys to distribute to victims of the Memorial Day Tornadoes. Some families lost everything during the tornadoes.
In 2019, people in the community rallied together and made Dayton’s problems their own, said Matt Sliver, founder of Dayton Inspires, a group dedicated to inspiring community pride in Dayton.
Dayton has always been a city with a small-town sense of community, and after the tragedies, residents have shown that the growth and prosperity of this city is something they can all root for and work toward as a team, he said.
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Setbacks are inevitable, but a big lesson from last year was that the community is always stronger together than it is apart, he said.
“The essential piece of being a Daytonian is resilience, and that’s something we all have whether we’re in good times or bad,” Sliver said. “There’s something about this city that sticks, and the people who live here are passionate about growth and perseverance as a community.”
Sliver said he doesn’t think the community needs to ask itself how to keep the goodwill going in 2020. “If we continue on the path that we are on, of creating opportunities for interaction and pride in our city, the positive feelings come naturally,” he said.
Dayton is used to tough times. Hardship is part of the city’s fabric.
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Sometimes, Whaley pointed out, traumatic events are the spark that lead people to get engaged in the community long-term, and hopefully what happened over the summer led to increased engagement.
But, she said, it’s OK if some people who rolled up their sleeves and got to work after the tragedies try to return to their normal routines.
“Dayton will never be the same after 2019,” Whaley said. “But I completely understand that people long for it to be the same. I think everyone will process and act differently, and that’s completely normal.”
People are still unpacking what happened in 2019, Whaley said, and it is a long road to recovery.
But something’s changed in the community’s mindset, and many people seem to feel more attached and invested in Dayton, she said.
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Dayton was strong long before 2019, and “Dayton strong” is much more than a slogan, said Raphael Carranza, one of the founders of Sportcial, a group that hosts games, events and sports and social leagues for adults.
For many, “Dayton strong” is a way of life.
Carranza said that’s because the community is home to genuinely good people who have always cared for each other.
Community members did so many good things last year, not for attention or praise, but just because they wanted to make other people’s lives better, Carranza said.
Carranza said he has no doubt the community pride will last. It might not be as obvious or “in your face” moving forward, he said, but it is deeply rooted.
“The pride is part of our character now,” said PJ Falter, co-founder of Sportcial. “It’s part of Dayton’s culture.”
Unexpected tragedies move people into action, and there's a lot to learn from how the community organized and responded to the events of 2019, said Lauren White, executive director of UpDayton.
Dayton residents proved they are ready and willing to do something and pitch in — they just don’t always know how to help, White said.
White said it shouldn’t take a tragedy or disaster for community members to come together and lend a helping hand.
“It’s time we reframe the everyday challenges of our community as urgent matters demanding action now,” she said. “One way of doing this is by creating more transparency around issues facing our community and communicating ways we can all contribute because most people want to help they just don’t always know how.”
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Comedian Dave Chappelle’s massive “Gem City Shine” block party and star-studded concert drew a crowd of about 30,000 people and was designed to “reclaim” the Oregon District and show support for those affected by the mass shooting there.
The event provided a great example of what is possible when people work together and showed that uniting communities and going for something big can be the same thing, said Kyle Babirad, president of the Oregon District Business Association.
There are many takeaways from last year’s tragedies, but what really stood out was the consequences of having divided communities in a city going through consequential events, Babirad said.
Babirad said people in the Oregon District so often were called on to make sense of the series of tragedies, but they do not represent everyone impacted by the events, adding it’s important to remember that many black families were especially hard hit and their voices should be heard.
Dayton’s strength is its people, and divisions in the community need to be eliminated and better relationships need to be formed between different parts of the population, Babirad and other community members said.
“After this year, I knew it was critical that we find as many ways as possible to merge our communities and create shared ownership,” Babirad said.
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