Out of a senseless tragedy, they have sought ways to find meaning in advocacy.
Many relatives of the 26 children and educators killed five years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut have dedicated themselves to charity, activism and other efforts to channel their grief and, in many cases, to help prevent violence.
‘You have two choices,’ said Rebecca Kowalski, whose 7-year-old son, Chase, died in Newtown. ‘I could be in the bottom of a bottle; I could not get out of my bed. Or, I could do what’s making us heal a little bit every day.’
This undated family photo provided by Sandy Hook Promise shows sons Dylan, left, and Jake, right, with parents Ian and Nicole Hockley. Dylan was among those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The Hockley parents were co-founders of Sandy Hook Promise, a group that lobbied for mental health care changes and gun control legislation in the months after the shooting
In this December 14, 2013, file photo, a makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home on the first anniversary of the tragedy. Five years later, residents are dealing with what it means to be from a place whose name has become synonymous with tragedy
Street artist Mark Panzarino, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York on June 14, 2013
Lynn and Christopher McDonnell, the parents of seven-year-old Grace McDonnell, grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary after learning their daughter was one of 20 school children and six adults killed after Adam Lanza opened fire on them before killing himself
Some organizations, like the Kowalski’s youth triathlon program, honor the passions of the children who were lost on December 14, 2012.
Others have jumped into the policy fray to lobby for gun control or improved mental health care. In some cases, they have traveled the country, and even the world, as recognized experts in their fields, such as Jeremy Richman, a scientist whose Avielle Foundation for the study of brain health is named for his slain daughter.
The Sandy Hook families have created a website to share each of their stories and information about the various projects they have started in memory of their family members.
The Associated Press has looked at some of these families as the nation prepares to mark the 5th anniversary of the tragic mass shooting.
In this April 8, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama embraces Scarlett Lewis, mother of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Jesse Lewis, after speaking in Hartford. Her Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement has developed its own social-emotional learning curriculum being used on a pilot basis in four schools in Connecticut, Hawaii, Arkansas and New Mexico
In this August 5, 2017 photo, Rebecca Kowalski and child athletes wait for the rain to stop so they can begin the annual Race4Chase kids state triathlon at the YMCA’s Camp Sloper in Southington. The Kowalski family began the Race4Chase program to honor their son, Chase Kowalski, who was among 20 first-graders killed
This undated photo provided by Safe and Sound Schools shows Emilie Parker, who was among 20 first-graders killed. Her mother Alissa Parker teamed with Michele Gay, who also lost her daughter Josephine in the shooting, to form Safe and Sound Schools. The women travel to schools around the country, giving talks that detail personal experiences on the day of the shooting, and about what can be done to make schools safer
Alissa Parker had Michele Gay’s phone number on her refrigerator because Parker’s daughter, Emilie, had been invited to a birthday party for Gay’s daughter, Josephine.
The day before the party was to be held, both children were killed.
Parker, who had lived in Newtown less than a year and didn’t know many other parents, called Gay. The two bonded over their shared loss and eventually teamed to form Safe and Sound Schools, a foundation that provides information and resources about school safety.
They travel, usually separately, to schools around the country, giving talks that detail their personal experiences on the day of the shooting and discussing in detail how their children died. They then talk about what can be done to make schools safer, everything from making sure that classrooms can be locked from the inside to involving first responders in school emergency drills.
‘I feel very solid that this is what Josephine wants me to be doing, and Alissa feels the same way about Emilie,’ Gay said. ‘We made a deliberate choice to be guided by our children and their spirits. We wanted to be positive. We wanted to avoid the political and some of the hot button issues and be focused on the practical things that everybody can do to make the community safer.’
Kowalski said her healing has come by organizing a children’s triathlon program, Race4Chase , in memory of their son, who loved to race and had competed in a similar event the summer before the shooting.
The free day camps, run in conjunction with the YMCA, teach children the fundamentals of swimming, biking, running, nutrition, strength and flexibility. At the end of six weeks, campers come together for a sanctioned triathlon.
The program has grown to 20 locations in three states.
‘We originally wanted a brick-and-mortar place where families could come and work out and be together,’ Kowalski said. ‘We knew we were going somewhere, but we didn’t know where. Chase provided us with the direction. Now, we have 20 places, and people have really embraced what the program is all about.’
In this October 10, 2017 photo, Michele Gay speaks to educators at the Groton Dunstable Regional Middle School in Groton, Massachusetts, as part of her Safe and Sound Schools initiative. Gay began advocating for school safety after her daughter, Josephine, was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five years ago
In this November 5, 2016 photo, children participate in the fun run at the annual Vicki Soto 5K race in Stratford. The race is held by the Soto family to raise money to fund scholarships for students interested in careers in education. First-grade teacher Vicki Soto was one of 26 killed in the Sandy Hook massacre
In this August 5, 2017 photo, swimmers exit the water at the fourth annual Race4Chase kids triathlon finale in Southington. The Kowalski family began the Race4Chase program to honor their son, Chase Kowalski, who was among 20 first-graders killed
This undated photo provided by Safe and Sound Schools shows Josephine Gay, who was among 20 first-graders killed. Her mother Michele Gay teamed with Alissa Parker, who also lost her daughter Emilie in the shooting, to form Safe and Sound Schools. The women travel to schools around the country, giving talks that detail personal experiences on the day of the shooting, and about what can be done to make schools safer
While some in Newtown avoid speaking the name of the shooter, Adam Lanza, Nelba Marquez-Greene freely discusses the social and emotional problems of the man who killed her 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace.
‘I want people to remember that Adam, the person who did this, was also once 6 and in a first-grade classroom and that if we had reached out earlier, then maybe this could have changed,’ Marquez-Greene said.
Marquez-Greene’s Ana Grace Project works with schools in New Britain, a city just west of Hartford, to teach empathy, combat bullying and help socially isolated children.
The foundation’s Love Wins campaign, created with a local teacher, builds on the existing curriculum and also brings therapists and interns into the schools to help identify children who need extra help with social skills.
Scarlett Lewis, whose son, Jesse, was killed at Sandy Hook, also has been pushing for more emotional learning in schools. Her Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement has developed its own social-emotional learning curriculum which began on a pilot basis in four schools in Connecticut, Hawaii, Arkansas and New Mexico and has been downloaded by many other schools and organizations.
‘I believe this is an urgent matter,’ Lewis said. ‘I believe it would have saved my son’s life, as well as the lives of other victims across the United States and reduce bullying.’
The family of slain first-grade teacher Vicki Soto decided to hold a 5K race in her hometown of Stratford, Connecticut, annually around her November birthday to celebrate her life.
In 2013, about 500 runners took part, many wearing outfits adorned with Soto’s favorite animal, the pink flamingo. Last month’s race had more than 4,000 runners and walkers.
With the proceeds, the Sotos have given out more than $90,000 in scholarships to students pursuing careers in education.
In this January 5, 2016 file photo, Mark Barden, whose son Daniel died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, talks before introducing President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Barden is a co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, one of the best-known organizations to form in the shooting’s aftermath. The group lobbied for mental health care changes and gun control legislation in the months after the shooting
Noah Pozner, 6, was one of the victims of the massacre. He is survived by his parents, Leonard and Veronique
Twenty-seven wooden angel figures are seen placed in a wooded area beside a road near the Sandy Hook Elementary School for the victims of the shooting, including Lanza
Emily Mackay, of Stratford, received one of the first scholarships in 2014. She expects to graduate this spring from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in communications disorders and plans to get a master’s degree so she can pursue a career in an elementary school as a speech pathologist.
‘Being a part of Vicki’s legacy has really motivated me throughout school. I will forever be grateful and honored that the Soto family believed in me to carry on Vicki’s legacy and will always teach my students with her in mind,’ Mackay said.
The Sotos also have established a literacy campaign at the local library that involves such things as after-school tutoring, and the creation of mentor-text learning programs.
Sandy Hook Promise, one of the best-known organizations to form in the shooting’s aftermath, was co-founded by several Newtown families, including the parents of first-grade victims Dylan Hockley and Daniel Barden.
The group lobbied for mental health care changes and gun control legislation in the months after the shooting, successfully advocating for state laws limiting sales of some guns in states such as Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois and New Jersey.
The group also was heavily involved in a failed effort in 2013 to get a federal law banning some semi-automatic weapons and expanding criminal and mental background checks for gun purchases.
The group says it had 17 families from Sandy Hook who lobbied 49 senators over seven days.
In this December 14, 2012, file photo, officials stand outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School. A 2014 report by the Office of Connecticut Child Advocate concluded that gunman Adam Lanza’s actions were not directly caused by his psychiatric problems, but it noted that his mother rejected psychologists’ recommendations that her son should be medicated and undergo treatment for anxiety and other conditions. Five years after the massacre, efforts to improve mental health care for young people have had mixed results
This handout crime scene evidence photo provided by the Connecticut State Police shows damage done to the front entrance at Sandy Hook Elementary School following the shooting
Pictured is Adam Lanza, who entered Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, and shot dead 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself
Sandy Hook Promise then switched its focus from legislation to community-based prevention programs, education and public service campaigns designed to change ‘gun violence acceptance attitudes and behaviors,’ said Nicole Hockley.
Among other things, the organization teaches people to recognize those who exhibit warning signs such as a bullying victim who has a fascination with firearms, has threatened to hurt themselves or others, has access to guns and has become disinterested in school.
They point to events such as one in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2015 where a counselor trained by the organization was able to identify a threat to a middle school that resulted in the arrest of a student who had told others he was planning to bomb the school and had recruited others to help shoot children.
‘We absolutely know it’s making a difference because we’ve trained over 2million children and adults in the last 2 1/2 years,’ Hockley said.
The group this week launched its latest public service announcement, depicting a newscast covering a school shooting the day before it actually takes place to illustrate how knowing warning signs can prevent such tragedies.