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Hollie’s story: a journey of tragedy, calling and hope

Hollie and Owen Fraser share a moment after class.

It’s a night that still haunts Hollie Fraser.

A college student at the time, Hollie was looking forward to a late-night movie with her boyfriend. The date led them to the local Century 16 Theater. The night’s much-anticipated showing drew a crowd.

The couple found two seats in the packed theater before settling in to watch the midnight premier of the Batman trilogy’s, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

It was July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colorado.

For Hollie something didn’t feel right. “We sat in our seats, and something said ‘get up and move,’” she recalled. “So, we got up and moved to the other side of the theater. And then everything started happening.”

The “everything” was a combination of open gunfire, multiple weapons, smoke bombs and screams. The madness was dictated by a lone gunman who had long plotted the night’s horrifying event. By the time the chaos ended, 12 people were killed and 70 more injured – two of the victims having sat in the seats previously occupied by Hollie and her date. The Aurora shooting immediately captured headlines and hearts of the nation.

However, numbers, newscasts and police reports, only told part of the story. That night was also the start of Hollie Fraser’s story as she charted a course in dealing with life after Aurora.

At the start of her journey – Hollie packed. She packed all the horror, trauma, fear and memories of the shooting in a place way down deep. Out of sight. Seemingly out of mind.

“I just went about my life and didn’t talk about it,” said Hollie. “I didn’t get on any medications. I didn’t do any counseling. I just moved forward and buried it.”

She set out – receiving a vet tech degree and a job opportunity. A transitional move to New Mexico led to a door opening into biomedical research with animals. Not only did she begin a new job, she also met her future husband, who was serving in the military. It seemed to be a fresh start – but for the new couple, the past was an uninvited visitor that on occasions showed up unannounced.

“My husband also had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Hollie explained, “so we kind of balanced each other. I guess you could say he balanced my PTSD and I balanced his. We worked off of that.”

However, one day while on the job, the equilibrium shifted in the wrong direction – the past immediately flooding the present.

Hollie was conducting research when she experienced her first issue. The incident prompted her to seek counseling, but she soon realized it was not what she expected as the recommended remedy was medications. The ordeal did help her realize that she had not yet found her career and life path.

As much as she enjoyed working with animals, it was the people she was most drawn to. Others saw it too. “When I was working in a clinical setting, they would specifically pull me in to work with the owners who were hard to deal with,” she said. “Or they would pull me in to the euthanasia rooms to sit with owners as their animals were passing.”

Hollie felt a desire to help others.

Returning to school, she earned her certified nursing assistant license (CNA). The license allowed her to gain experience and explore different avenues. But it was her work with older patients and even hospice care that became near to her heart. “Working with the elderly is definitely a calling for me,” said Hollie, who shared how her colleagues often encouraged her to pursue a degree in nursing.

After she and her fiancée married, the couple made plans and readied for a new adventure. That led them to Florida.

“In this time frame, I was not seeing any counseling for the shooting,” she said. “I wasn’t talking about it. I was bottling it up and bottling it up and just moving forward.”

Keeping it bottled was aided by immersing herself in her new work, gaining rehab experience and assisting with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Hollie’s love for helping others grew to the point that she was ready to finally pursue a nursing degree.

After completing all of the prerequisites for nursing school, Hollie was ready to apply. That’s when she learned she was pregnant.

Nursing school would have to wait.

For Hollie, what should have been a season of joy and celebration, was instead an overwhelming time. While working hard helped keep her mind focused, it began taking a toll on her pregnancy, leading to health issues that made her fear for her baby.

That’s when memories from 2012 returned.

“During my pregnancy, my PTSD started to go off,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to project my issues on my baby. Once again, she sought counseling.

“I had buried it for so long that I needed help,” she said. “I was able to relive the entire thing, start to finish and analyze that. It was affecting my life, but I didn’t realize how much.”

Counseling helped, but not everything was better. The joy of Owen’s birth on New Year’s Day offered a respite – but the happiness was brief.  

Hollie and newborn son, Owen.

“Two days after my son was born, my husband lost his military disability and told me that we were selling our house and moving to Tennessee. That was very hard to manage and deal with.”

The news was immediately followed by her husband’s own bout with PTSD and depression. Struggling with colic, their newborn’s constant crying was more than her husband could manage.

“He completely checked out of our marriage,” she said. “The crying triggered his PTSD, and it became unsafe for him to be around me or the baby because he would revert back to the military mindset.”

The situation forced him to leave their home for hours on end, leaving Hollie to care for baby Owen while also packing their family to move.

Hollie and Owen moved to Tennessee – alone, joining her parents outside of Greeneville. And though three months later her husband joined them – the reunion was short lived. After a few months, he signed over full custody of Owen. The divorce left Hollie with bills, credit card debt, vehicle payments and a new baby to raise.

I don’t know what to do,” Hollie remembered thinking. “I don’t know how to do this anymore. I need help.”

The load was heavy and getting heavier.

That’s when Hollie found Greeneville’s Hope Center. It was there that others came alongside her, helping carry weight she had borne for so long.

“They gave me all the answers I ever needed,” she said. “They helped me clothe my child. I went every week to parenting classes.”

The spiritual component she found through Bible study at the Center changed her outlook. She admits she was reluctant to believe God could somehow change her situation – but she prayed nonetheless.

Finding the needed solitude to share troubles with God was no easy task for the new single mom.

“I started praying, and I wasn’t sure that it was doing anything, she said. “I would mostly pray in the shower because that would be my five minutes of alone-time.” On one particular occasion, completed exhausted and upset, Hollie bared her heart to God.

“I can’t do this anymore,” prayed Hollie. “I give it all to you. Tell me what I’m supposed to do next. Tell me how I’m supposed to do it. You don’t have to tell me right now, but show me and put me on the path you want me to be on.’”

“I got goosebumps everywhere, and I started bawling,” she said. “That’s when I knew that God was there.”

Hollie says it was then that she realized she was exactly where she was supposed to be. With The Hope Center providing necessary relief and support, she was ready to take steps that would help her provide for her son.

She applied to Carson-Newman University, setting her sights on a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

She recalled visiting the school with Owen in tow for the first time.

“As soon as we drove on campus, something changed – and the presence of God was there,” she said. With Owen riding on her lap during the campus tour, Hollie remembered saying to him, “I think this is where we are supposed to be.”

With no idea of how she was going to pay for her education, textbooks or even gas to get to class, Hollie said she had faith God was going to make it work.

Determined to do her part in finding opportunities to reach her goal, she applied for scholarships and other funding. What first seemed out of reach, turned into a path forward.

Thanks to an outside funding program, she received $2,000 to be used towards tuition, books or uniforms each semester. She was also able to secure daycare for Owen. She was even selected as the recipient of a $20,000 scholarship, something that might not have happened if not for the encouragement she received from the Hope Center to apply.

Though she recognizes her blessings, things are still far from being easy. The daily stresses of being a single mom are still there. But it’s her college experience that is helping her manage.

“I would pull into my parking spot at Carson-Newman, put my car in park, and just start crying,” she said, “because I knew that’s where I was supposed to be, and that God was there, and I could feel his presence.

“In class, they would pray for you, and I could feel God,” she said. “I would be so keyed up and so anxious and so stressed out, and they’d start praying. No matter how tired I was or how many hours I had studied…I knew I could do it.”

It’s been a long road with many twists and unexpected turns, but Hollie now knows that through it all, nothing was left to chance. “It’s been one heck of a journey,” she said, reflecting on where she has been.

“After the shooting, I decided I survived for a reason. I didn’t know what the reason was until quite recently,” she said. “So many people died at the hands of someone else’s choice. On that day, there were so many people’s lives that were changed at the hands of someone else’s life decision. I wasn’t going to let a decision that someone else made change my life forever.”

Hollie travels lighter these days, having come to peace with both the past and the future. And though she doesn’t know what her destination will be – she’s ok with that.

“It’s whatever God wants me to do,” she said, now in her second semester. “If it’s working with kids, that’s fine. If it’s working with the elderly, that’s fine. If it’s working in a specialty, then ok. But he’ll tell me. He’ll show me where I’m supposed to be.”

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