One year ago, a man drove through a Christmas parade in the Wisconsin community of Waukesha, killing six people, injuring dozens more and turning a beloved tradition into a scene of horror.

Four of the six victims were from the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, a tight-knit band of women who march in parades throughout the state. The loss of longtime leaders nearly threatened an end to the group, according to a Facebook post marking the tragedy’s first anniversary on Monday.

A year later, the city and grannies have pulled together, with neighbors supporting neighbors, families drawing closer and wounds beginning to heal. 

“Everyone suffered emotionally. Everyone wondered what would become of the (Milwaukee Dancing Grannies),” the post said.

The grannies are back, and they’re planning to march in the same Waukesha Christmas parade that ended in tragedy a year ago.

Betty Streng, a member of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, demonstrates dance steps to other group members at a practice in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. Streng, 64, was struck and seriously injured at a Christmas parade last November in Waukesha, Wis. She is now one of the coaches for the group and, along with several other group members, plans to return to the Waukesha parade in early December. Streng, whose brain was bleeding after she was struck, says she still gets dizzy when she sits up too quickly but, in many ways, has made a remarkable recovery.

Jan Kwiatkowski shows her “Granny Strong” tattoo after a Milwaukee Dancing Grannies practice in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. Kwiatkowski has been a Dancing Granny since 2018 and is now one of the group’s leaders. The number “4” in the tattoo represents three group members and another member’s husband who were among those killed when the driver of an SUV struck them at a Christmas parade last November in Waukesha, Wisconsin. At events and after practices, Kwiatkowski, a family therapist and ordained chaplain, often encourages group members to form a circle and place their pompoms together as they shout “Granny Strong!” in unison. It has become their rallying cry since tragedy struck.

Dancing Grannies Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson,  Leanna Owen and Tamara Durand, and one group member’s husband, Wilhelm “Bill” Hospel, were killed at the Christmas parade on Nov. 21, 2021. Three other members were injured. 

“Ginny and Lee were the glue that held this group together. Their passion, dedication, commitment, gentleness, caring friendship, and groups history was gone,” the post said.

Durand, who was participating in her first Dancing Grannies parade, had a “bubbly personality, love of God, family, and friends.” Hospel was the group’s loving “helper,” especially to his wife Lola when she performed.

During one of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies practices Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Oak Creek, Wis.

Pam Junion, 65, and other members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies practice in a parking lot in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. Junion is one of a few women who answered a call for new members as the group attempted to rebuild in the face of tragedy. Three Dancing Grannies and one group member’s husband were among those killed at a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, when the driver of an SUV struck them on the parade route. Dozens more, including some Grannies, were injured. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

Grannies will dance again in parade

In January, the Dancing Grannies began to move forward with “the blessing of our fallen” families and are now in full swing of holiday parades, although 2022 “means so much more than ever before” to the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies.

“Ginny, Lee, Tamara, and Bill are watching down on us, guiding, pushing, and moving us forward … We are granny strong!” the post stated in all capitalized letters. 

Jan Kwiatkowski, a co-leader of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, smiles and swings pompoms as she marches in the Veterans Day parade in Milwaukee on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. Kwiatkowski, 67, is a family therapist and ordained chaplain who has been a Dancing Granny since 2018. She offered to help lead the group as they have regrouped and rebuilt in the face of tragedy.

Tyler Pudleiner, left, a teen who was among those injured in a parade last year in Waukesha, Wis., stands with members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies before a Veterans’ Day parade in Milwaukee on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. The Grannies, who lost three members at that same Christmas parade, invited Pudleiner to help carry their banner. The driver of an SUV sped onto the Waukesha parade route Nov. 21, 2021, and hit and killed six people and injured more than 60 others. “I’ve said it from day one, that we're stronger than him. And in moments like this when we come together, we're showing it,” Pudleiner said.

The words Keep On Dancing decorate on the back of Kathi Schmeling's jacket as she marches at a practice of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in Milwaukee. Schmeling, 62, ran from the street to avoid injury when the driver of an SUV sped through the route of a Christmas parade last November in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

In a few weeks, the group will perform at the same parade, with some returning members and several newcomers who have become part of the granny family to dance and help the group “navigate a whole new world.”

“It wasn’t easy at times. Some days were challenging dealing with different personalities, thoughts, opinions, why this or that, on top of grief and trauma. It became a fun-filled adventure, at times long and emotional. We stuck together and came out stronger than ever,” the post said.

“Performing, hearing the cheers and applause, seeing smiles, and interacting with the crowds all warm our hearts. Communities near and far wanted us to perform, knowing our fallen four would not want us to give up and disband the group.”

Victims’ loved ones addressed driver in court

Darrell Brooks Jr., the SUV driver who plowed through the Christmas parade last year, was convicted of all 76 counts against him and sentenced to life in prison this fall. 

At a recent sentencing hearing, victims and their loved ones had the opportunity to address Brooks and share their experiences. More than 40 people spoke, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of USA TODAY Network, reported.

Family members and victims of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy presented impact statements prior to the sentencing of Darrell Brooks Jr. on Nov. 15, the first day of a two-day sentencing hearing in Waukesha County Circuit Court.

Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow wipes away tears while talking about victim statements during her closing remarks before sentencing Darrell Brooks to 6 consecutive life sentences in a Waukesha County Circuit Court in Waukesha, Wis., on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

Chris Owen, son of Leanna “Lee” Owen, spoke about his mother wanting to visit him and his wife in Turkey. 

“It was her dream trip. Out of all the places in the world, that was the one place she had to visit before she died,” Owen said. “She was the one that made sure everyone got their Christmas list out on time. She made the best eggnog I ever had, and she made my grandma’s mac and cheese whenever we were together.”

David Sorenson, husband of over 56 years to Virginia Sorenson, said he prays that “she is watching over us.”

“The life I was once able to share with Ginny is gone. But it has strengthened my family’s closeness and in a way, made us stronger for the great challenges we have ahead of us.” 

A container holding the ashes of Virginia 'Ginny' E. Sorenson, one of the Dancing Grannies killed in the Waukesha Christmas Parade, sits on the ledge between the gallery and the courtroom as the verdict is read during Darrell Brooks trial in a Waukesha County Circuit Court in Waukesha, Wis., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.

Images of victims who were killed during the Waukesha Christmas Parade in 2021, are shown during the opening statement by the state prosecution on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022 at the trial of Darrell Brooks at the Waukesha Courthouse. Brooks is charged with homicide and reckless endangerment for the 2021 Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy.

A plaque honoring Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson rests on a lamp post on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, along Main Street in Waukesha, Wis., as Donna Kalik walks nearby. Sorenson was a leader and member of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies who was killed when the driver of an SUV sped through a Christmas parade in Waukesha last November, killing six and injuring dozens of other people. There is a plaque for each of the dead along the parade route. Several new members have joined the Grannies since the incident, including Kalik, who has become the group’s volunteer coordinator. She was at the parade last year and felt compelled to support the Grannies. “It was like a war zone,” she said of the scene the driver left in his wake.

Contributing: Ashley Luthern, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel