Driving on the curving roads of Connecticut, the scenery is bucolic, the homes lovely colonial clapboard. A driver's feelings are likely peaceful. The birds sing; the fruit trees gently shed their blossoms. It is spring, after all.
In Florida, where large beautiful homes make up many gated communities, children ride their bikes freely around their neighborhoods, maybe walk from their home to that of their best friend.
What could be safer for our kids than growing up in such neighborhoods? Where parents have worked hard to assure their children grow up well taken care of, watched over and secure? Where many moms are lucky enough to stay home after the kids are born, to be there when the school bus arrives?
Still, for Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, to mention just two locations of the hundreds of United States school shootings (24 reported in 2018), the careful parental choices made for many children did not keep them out of harm’s way. Not when shooters made their way into the schools with the intent to murder.
While many parents of both the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy of Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, and of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, took the road to activism, others chose different paths.
For Michele Gay and Alissa Parker, whose daughters Josephine “Joey” and Emilie were both killed at Sandy Hook in Newtown, the focus became school safety.
“There was a lot of activity and conversation around gun-related issues. For Alissa and me, though, you know, we had surviving girls that needed to go back to school. And the two daughters we lost loved school,” said Gay. “So it seemed only natural that would be where we would put our attention. Sending our daughters back to school and feeling safe and OK about that. And we knew that we weren’t the only people that were struggling with that. We knew that, you know, parents from thousands of miles away in other communities were thinking, ‘OK, have we crossed the threshold here? Is it no longer safe? Do we no longer have the expectation of safety for our kids in school?’ That’s why we chose to focus our energy there.”
Gay and Parker created Safe and Sound Schools, a non-profit national organization made up of school-safety experts, as well as professionals in mental health, emergency medical, fire and law enforcement. The organization “built a community committed to the safety of our nation’s schools,” and offers a free school safety model along with corresponding toolkits, which schools can download.
For another mom whose daughter was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, her family’s direction was also very different from advocating for gun reform.
JoAnn Bacon and her husband Joel turned to writing a children’s book. With another writer, the two wrote a book based on their first-grader Charlotte and her love for dogs. Then, their son Guy, who was 10 when his sister died, worked on his own book — about therapy dogs, which had helped him find his way after the shooting. The Bacons also created a foundation to emphasize and reward kindness, which later morphed into one that brings support dogs into schools. And then JoAnn began looking for research on psychological, therapeutic support for grieving families. (She discovered there was very little available; I will address that in a future post.)
All of this was part of the family’s recovery work, as well as a way to honor Charlotte Helen Bacon, and not let her memory fade. They wanted to find a way to ensure that their only daughter would be remembered.
“I wanted to make sure that Charlotte’s story was … available, and people had the ability to learn about her,” said JoAnn Bacon, who considers herself to be a private person. “So we decided we wanted to write a children’s book.”
While they knew soon after the shooting that they hoped to write a book, it was many months before they were ready to actually move ahead with the idea. The book was published on what would have been — should have been — Charlotte’s ninth birthday:
Feb. 22, 2015, just about two years after the shooting.
“Good Dogs, Great Listeners: The Story of Charlotte, Lily and the Litter” is about the little brunette with a “bold sense of adventure,” who loved the color pink, and her dear friend, a dog named Lily. That dog is based on the real Lily, a golden lab who was devoted to Charlotte.
“Oftentimes the victims and their stories get lost. And they get lost in advocacy. I felt like everybody was ready to jump into trying to prevent something like this happening again, which I understand. But I think as they were doing that, the victims and their families were getting left in the dust,” explained Bacon, who said creating the book was both excruciatingly painful and wonderful. Painful because of the deep dive into grief all over again, and wonderful because the book honored Charlotte. “I wanted to make sure that Charlotte’s story was there.”
The week I interviewed Michele Gay and JoAnn Bacon, I was at a dinner with several Connecticut couples, most of us in our 60s. Some of the women, of course, talked about their children, 30-somethings, and how those “kids” were doing in life. We all agreed it was good to see how our children had turned out, how their lives were going now — their careers, their loves, and their avocations. I’ve been part of this kind of conversation many, many times, and I am always delighted to reflect on my own children. I nodded along, but felt a terrible sadness.
That night I kept thinking about Charlotte and Joey and Emilie, and the so many others. And of those little children’s siblings and parents, and their grief.
Let’s not forget. Let’s not forget those kids, and their families.