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Planned Parenthood to Colorado Springs and the nation: 'We aren't going anywhere'

May 1, 2016 Updated: May 2, 2016 at 8:43 am
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Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain was officially reopened on Sunday, May 1, 2016. Three people were gunned down at the health center on Friday, November 27, 2015, the day after Thanksgiving. Former staff member, Lynn Young (right) gets a hug after the ceremony. (photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

Planned Parenthood had a message for its neighbors, patients and the nation Sunday in Colorado Springs.

Five months after the clinic was brought under siege by a gunman who called himself "a warrior for the babies," the staff gathered to celebrate a full reopening.

After three people died and nine were injured in the Nov. 27 attack, the staff has rebuilt. After employees left in grief and frustration about being targets for providing women's health services, they came together.

Their message: "We deplore your violence. We reject your threats. We aren't going anywhere."

It's a defiant response to the blood spilled by admitted gunman Robert Lewis Dear Jr.

"One way which I believe we can honor the memories of those who lost their lives is to recommit ourselves to ending violence against women, against doctors, against clinicians, against health centers, immigrants, America," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

In the months since the shooting, workers at the Centennial Boulevard clinic repaired damage from bullets and a hole created when police twice rammed the front of the building with an armored vehicle.

It has been a time of healing for employees, not all of whom returned to their jobs, said Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

The shooting changed everything, she said.

One obvious but not discussed change was reinforcements to security.

Cowart wouldn't go into detail about how employees and patients will be better protected, but the ceremony's set-up suggests access to the clinic will be more closely monitored.

An RSVP was required. The event was held under a tent in the front parking lot, and attendees were shuttled to the clinic. Two men in black suits and dark sunglasses flanked the stage, scanning the crowd.

No one was permitted to enter the building for security reasons, Cowart said.

Fear lingers, several of the event's speakers admitted.

No one would confirm if employees seated in the first four rows were among those working Nov. 27, but comments made by presenters and emotional moments throughout the ceremony suggested several were. Tears and hugs frequently were exchanged.

Officials repeatedly applauded the staff. In the face of violence and fear, most returned. So have patients, officials said.

That's who they stand for, and with, said Ellen Golombek, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

"No one, no woman and no man, should ever have to fear for their safety in order to get health care," Golombek said.

In a pink shirt and tie, state Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, vowed to continue fighting for Planned Parenthood as opponents push to block its government funding.

State Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, said he hopes to use the tragedy as a catalyst for discussions about mental health and today's "rhetoric of violence."

Two state psychologists recently testified that Dear has a delusional disorder and is incapable of making informed decisions. They advocated against sending Dear to trial until he's treated. El Paso County District Judge Gilbert Martinez is expected to decide on Dear's competency after a hearing scheduled for 1 p.m. May 10.

Planned Parenthood's fight with critics is nowhere near an end, as evidenced by the group of protesters stationed daily near the clinic's entrance, including Sunday.

Standing next to a sign advertising the clinic as a "Child Sacrifice Center," protester Jimmy Dittmar, 60, said he will never stop fighting abortion. He made the trip from Alamosa to say so.

Dittmar said he knows what life looks like 15 to 19 weeks into gestation. He said he held the 5-inch-long body of his son, Jimmy Jr., after the child died in his wife's womb 31 years ago.

Dittmar said he won't resort to violence, but he won't stop protesting.

"What he (Dear) did is reprehensible," Dittmar said. "I follow the Bible, and it says, 'Thou shalt not murder.'"

Planned Parenthood isn't stopping either, Cowart said.

A memorial eventually will honor the three killed in the attack - Police Officer Garrett Swasey of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Ke'Arre Stewart and Jennifer Markovsky - as a reminder of the scars the clinic will carry forever.

But the memorial also will be a symbol of the organization's strength and resilience, Cowart said.

"We stand together, we stand strong - no matter what."

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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