AURORA | Yousef Gharbi’s life changed in a few terrifying moments July 20.
The Rangeview High School tennis team changed it for the better five months later, when they met with their classmate who was a victim of the mass shooting at the Century Aurora 16 movie theater.
Coach Steve Joiner’s team donated $300 from its 24 Hours of Tennis fundraiser in August to Gharbi, who was shot in the head and hit with shrapnel during the shooting that rocked Aurora and the country and left 12 dead and 58 wounded.
“I’m alive and I’m happy about that; I’m a little shy when people do nice things for me like this,” the 17-year-old Gharbi told Joiner and the tennis team in the school’s media center Dec. 13.
“Thank you so much. It means so much that complete strangers would do this.”
Seeing Gharbi walking around, looking healthy and smiling just months after the horrific incident made Joiner and his team relish their ability to help the family with at least some of its financial needs.
What started out as a simple fundraiser for the tennis program — with coaches and team members manning the school’s tennis courts for a full day in August to play and give pointers to anyone who came — quickly became a way to make a difference.
The team took in $900 and earmarked $600 of it to donate to a worthy cause.
They didn’t have to look far.
Sophomore Branden Neary, a tennis team member, was hit by a truck while riding his bike just after school started in August and was an obvious choice for some of the money.
Senior captain Matt Feria and the team were also looking for a way to help shooting victims and eventually found out that one of their classmates — Gharbi, who had been at Rangeview for just the second semester of last school year — was involved.
“If there’s a blow to Rangeview, it’s a blow to all of us,” Feria said. “A lot of our fundraisers, we’ll sell candy or something and the guys don’t get really excited about it.
“This one everybody hopped on board right away when they heard the idea. We felt that something that happened so close to home and had such a big impact on the Rangeview community, that’s what we needed make the 24 hours of tennis about.
“A lot of us really didn’t know him (Gharbi), we just knew the story of him.”
It took Gharbi and the team awhile to get connected, but they bonded quickly.
Accompanied by his mother, Amee, and with active little nephew Kaiden in tow, Gharbi visited the school and gratefully accepted the check presented by Joiner and Feria.
With his mom’s help, Yousef Gharbi then shared his story — or all that remembered of it — of the shooting in vivid detail to the rapt team.
Yousef Gharbi, who was 16 at the time, was in theater 9 with his cousin to watch the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” He didn’t know what was happening immediately when the gunfire began, but reacted quickly.
“The movie started getting loud; I didn’t see him throw the grenade thing across the room, but I heard it explode; there were a lot of teenagers there, so I just thought it was one of them being immature,” he recounted.
“Then I saw the gun in the air and the barrel light up, so I pushed my cousin down and got him to crawl towards the exit. I put my leg up and slipped in my own blood. I didn’t realize I’d been shot, but I wiped my face and there was blood everywhere.
“I started to crawl and then blacked out.”
The details of how Yousef Gharbi made it out of the theater and was transported to University Hospital are sketchy, but Amee Gharbi remembers vividly the frantic events of the night and the time her son — one of four children — spent in the hospital.
Yousef Gharbi was sedated for more than a week after the shooting as doctors carefully dealt with the bullet fragment in his skull and shrapnel in his arm and neck, in close proximity to his carotid artery.
When he finally awoke, Yousef Gharbi had no idea how much time had passed. He struggled with his time in the hospital, but was thankful to survive.
Yousef Gharbi is still undergoing physical and occupational therapy and need anxiety medicine to deal with the event itself, but his mother said doctors have no more medical concerns He should completely heal in two years.
The shooting has altered life for Amee Gharbi, who goes to movies during the day and can’t bear to watch the news.
“With us dealing with all of this, I think I’ve watched the news three or four times since the shooting and I don’t read the paper,” she said. “Everybody in the community has been wonderful. Not just for us, but for all of the victims.”
“It’s horrible to have to see people killed or maimed, but it’s nice to see that when that happens, communities come together and support each other so much.”
Yousef Gharbi is trying to get back to normal.
He’s currently in the Aurora Public School’s Rebound Ombudsman Program, which gives students personalized attention and the ability to work at their own pace and hopes to transition back to regular classes soon.
“I just try to go on about my life like a regular guy trying to make it,” Yousef Gharbi said. “I hang out with regular friends and do regular things.”
A photo gallery of Gharbi’s visit with the Rangeview tennis team can be found here.
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555