In anticipation of the Nov. 2 Soles for Catholic Education walk to celebrate Catholic education, your Catholic Herald is running a series of articles on Catholic education in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
When 40-year-old Wade Michael Page opened fire the morning of Aug. 5, 2012, in the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Abhay and Amanat Singh believe God helped them to be heroes.
Abhay, then a sixth-grader, and his sister Amanat, who was in fourth grade at St. Francis de Sales School, Lake Geneva, were recognized last fall with the Yell and Tell Foundation’s award for their heroic actions.
“God just made my legs move,” said Amanat, “When that man started shooting, we had a chance to run inside and start yelling to people.”
The children were playing outside while the women prepared the community meal; because the supply was low, their parents, Benny and Bobbie, left for the grocery store to purchase paper plates. They were gone only a few minutes when Page exited a purple car or taxi.
“It was strange; we were all playing outside, sitting and talking and telling jokes,” said Abhay, who has moved on to a public school. “All of a sudden he came out of the car, and the car was still moving. I thought maybe he needed directions or something and then he started walking and he got something out of his pocket. He started shooting at people, at the cars pulling inside, and we ran inside yelling to everyone.”
The children began screaming inside the gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, that Page was shooting at people, but to Abhay it felt as though everything was moving in slow motion and people were slow to react.
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“It was like the slow motion you see in a movie. At first, they all thought we were kidding, but when they heard the bullets and the screaming, they knew we told the truth,” he said. “After we told everyone, half of us went into the basement and half were in the pantry. My sister and I were in the pantry and someone called 911 and told the police that there was a guy inside killing people.”
Bobbie and Benny’s decision to go to the store may have saved their lives, but all they could think about was the safety of their children.
“We left, and at 10:26 a.m., the man entered the gurdwara and began shooting,” said Bobbie. “We were not allowed back in, and both kids were inside the whole time. It was so difficult and I can’t even explain what was going on inside my mind, but we were dying every minute to know what was happening and if the kids were OK.”
Seven people, including the gunman, died, and authorities believe that if it weren’t for the actions of Abhay and Amanat, many more lives may have been lost.
“I was really proud of them and at the same time thankful to God that he gave them the wisdom to save themselves as well as others,” said Bobbie. “Six people from our temple died that day and several injured; many of them were our close friends. We are a very close-knit community and this affected everyone. We have over 500 members and it hurt all of us.”
As immigrants from India, Benny and Bobbie have made their home in Lake Geneva since they arrived in the United States. When their children were ready for school, their parents chose St. Francis de Sales. While their faith backgrounds are different, the Singhs appreciate everything the school offers.
“They have gone there since K4 and we love this school,” said Bobbie. “I like the uniforms, discipline and everything. To us, faith is not an issue. The children are all learning how to be good human beings. The faith doesn’t matter to us. We are not biased that they are learning about Christianity. To us, all religions are the same because they are teaching you to live well and to do good things.”
For the first few days after the incident, both children were frightened and found solace sleeping next to their parents at night.
“We slept with them in the beginning,” said Abhay, “but a day or two later we got distracted and were able to calm down.”
The incident hit St. Francis de Sales hard, according to its principal, David Wieters, who said the school was inundated with telephone calls the following day from families who witnessed the Singhs on television.
“They wanted to help,” he said. “Several families admitted that their own children were having nightmares realizing what their friends, Abhay and Amanat, went through. Abhay and Amanat, along with their parents, Benny and Bobbie, are considered valued members of our St. Francis de Sales Parish School extended family. And in true family fashion, our families were there, offering their prayers, support and help for the Singhs.”
While attention from the media was intense at times, staff and teachers at St. Francis de Sales tried to instill a sense of normalcy for the children. Following the shooting, the school contacted the Singhs, offering counseling services with the parish and school staff, as well as assistance in dealing with the enormous media attention.
“Julie Wolf from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was contacted and offered their assistance in helping deal with the media onslaught the family had to deal with,” said Wieters. “The outpouring of caring and offers of help were reassuring to the Singhs.”
The heroic actions demonstrated by Abhay and Amanat are of no surprise to Wieters, the staff or classmates, who consider them to be kind, well-mannered leaders and role models to the student body.
“Both Abhay and Amanat were greeted with hugs and cheers from their classmates when school resumed in September,” said Wieters. “The incident at Oak Creek was downplayed originally at the start of the school year as we tried to maintain as normal a routine as possible to help the students lead a regular school life as possible, given what had happened.”
While neither student knew they would receive an award recognizing their heroism from the Yell and Tell Foundation last November, it was a significant moment for the school to publicly recognize their actions.
“We were finally able to officially recognize and honor two of our students who not only acted in a very heroic fashion, but are considered friends and family to all of us here at St. Francis de Sales Parish School,” said Wieters. “It was a relief in the fact that we could formally acknowledge and recognize what Abhay and Amanat had done. We are proud of them and grateful for their presence at our school.” Karen Mahoney, Special to Catholic Herald Family