SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- For a city that's been trying to dig itself out of bankruptcy for three years, where public services have been slashed and about a third of its 215,000 residents live in poverty, the massacre at San Bernardino's Inland Regional Center was a particularly painful punch to the gut.
The nonprofit institution, with its gleaming campus of modern buildings planted in the heart of the gritty city 60 miles east of Los Angeles, states proudly on its website that it is California's oldest and largest such social-services center. It provides help daily to more than 31,000 people, mostly children, afflicted with disabilities such as epilepsy, Down syndrome and autism.
When word raced through town Wednesday that two heavily armed people had sprayed one of the center's conference rooms with gunfire, killing 14 people and wounding 21, heartbreak was immediate.
"I don't know why anybody would come in and shoot there," said a tearful Sherry Esquerra, whose daughter works at the center and escaped unharmed. "These are all disabled kids, very disabled."
The targets of the husband-and-wife shooters were not the children, but the man's county health agency co-workers, who were holding a holiday gathering at the center. No children were killed or injured, a slightly silver lining to one of the city's darkest days.
The center was established in 1969 by concerned parents who said there was insufficient treatment available for their kids. It employs hundreds of counselors, therapists, case managers, social works and others. Often they work one-on-one with children, frequently in their homes.
"They provide those very specific services that you can't get anywhere else, and it's something my family could not survive without," said Kera Washburn, whose oldest daughter has autism and has been treated through the center for nearly 10 years.
In a city where 32 percent of households live beneath the poverty line, that's a crucial benefit. Even for those in better circumstances it's invaluable, said Washburn, a stay-at-home mother with three children.
"Schools don't come and help you in your home, a doctor doesn't come and help you in your home, but these people do," she said.
Sandra Wood, interim director of the Inland Empire Lighthouse for the Blind located just across the street from the center, said the facility serves as focal point for the community. It hosted a Christmas party just two days before the shootings and had a winter dance scheduled for Friday.
"They employ hundreds of people, counselors, psychologists, case workers, and a lot of people go through there from the community," she said.
A somber message posted on the center's website Thursday said all scheduled activities have been canceled, although center officials expect to get back to the business of helping people by Monday. That will be welcome news to a city that has yet to regain its footing after housing prices plunged during the Great Recession and a bankruptcy filing three years ago.
"Everybody knows San Bernardino has been beaten up with the bankruptcy and some of the things that have hit this community. And economically this community has been hit hard," Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said. "But this is a pretty resilient community. We will survive this."