Dec. 14, 2012, is a day that represents every parent’s worst nightmare. On that day, a gunman opened fire on students and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He killed 20 children and six educators.
In the years since the shooting, the parents of its youngest victims have worked to move forward with their lives while honoring their children’s legacies.
In anticipation of the five-year anniversary of the Newtown massacre, HuffPost spoke to six parents who each lost a child that day. They opened up about the initiatives they’ve started to help make the world a better place, the experience of grief, dealing with conspiracy theorists, their plans for Dec. 14 this year and their hopes for the future.
Scarlett Lewis, Mother Of Jesse Lewis
Scarlett Lewis’ 6-year-old son Jesse was killed in his first-grade classroom when gunman Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“Jesse was larger than life from the very beginning,” Lewis told HuffPost. “Very loud, very energetic, responsible and mature, and strong and courageous.”
She wasn’t surprised when police officers told her that her son had reportedly helped save other children’s lives in the last moments of his own. According to some survivor accounts, Jesse yelled for his classmates to run during a short pause in the shooting. Several students heeded his call and were able to escape.
Inspired by her son’s compassion and courage, Lewis created the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. “I thought, if he could face the shooter and tell his friends to run, if he could do that in the face of complete horror, I can certainly get up every day and promote a message of choosing love.”
The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is a charitable organization focused on empowering children by making sure they have access to social and emotional learning, or SEL, in their schools and communities.
The core values are based around “nurturing, healing love” ― three words Jesse had written on Lewis’ kitchen chalkboard (phonetically spelled) before his death.
“After Jesse’s death, I knew that if Adam Lanza had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing love that the tragedy wouldn’t have happened,” Lewis said. With guidance from a college professor, she researched SEL to help spread this message in schools.
“It’s teaching kids how to have positive relationships, how to label and manage their emotions, coping, resilience. Basically, how to feel kindness, caring and concern for themselves and others. Responsible decision-making,” Lewis explained.
Looking at long-term research, Lewis said she found that this approach effectively prevents violence, bullying, substance abuse, anxiety, depression suicide, incarceration and other widespread problems. With the help of educators and organizations like CASEL, she developed a comprehensive SEL curriculum, which educators and families can download from the foundation’s website for free.
“You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond. You can always respond with love.”
The program is proactive and focuses on preventing the causes of violence and suffering, instead of just addressing symptoms. Its formula encourages using courage, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion in action as the key to choosing love.
“You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond,” said Lewis. “You can always respond with love.”
Another underlying idea is something Lewis posited at Jesse’s funeral. “When I got up and spoke, I said, ‘Everybody has been asking, what can we do?’ And I said there was something we all could do.”
“I believe that the tragedy started with an angry thought in Adam Lanza’s head,” Lewis continued. “And an angry thought can be changed. So I asked everyone to start changing one angry thought into a loving thought every day. I said, ‘By doing that, you will positively impact yourself, those around you and through the ripple effect, you will make this a more peaceful and loving world.’”
Over the past year and a half, Lewis’ curriculum has been downloaded in 47 states and 29 countries.“We have transformed school cultures and climates. We have saved lives,” she said. One of the program’s biggest advocates is a former Connecticut high school student who attempted suicide and found renewed hope through the Choose Love Movement.
Another notable supporter is Chin Rodger, the mother of Isla Vista mass shooter Elliot Rodger. After attending one of Lewis’ workshops, Rodger reportedly told her she thought SEL would have saved Elliot and his victims. She later joined the Choose Love Movement’s advisory board. “I just think that’s so interesting to have two moms from opposite ends of the spectrum ― a mom of the victim, a mom of a shooter ― coming together and saying, ‘Well, here’s the solution,’” Lewis explained.
Lewis still lives in her farmhouse in Sandy Hook with Jesse’s older brother, J.T., who is now 17 years old. Shortly after the shooting, J.T. got involved in outreach as well. He had the opportunity to Skype with a group of Rwandan genocide survivors, who shared their experiences with loss, survival and resilience. The next day, then-12-year-old J.T. created Newtown Helps Rwanda to raise money to send genocide survivors to college. He’s sent at least two survivors to college and continues to fundraise to expand his impact.
“J.T. is healing himself through his service to others,” Lewis told HuffPost, adding that her son has received a number of awards for his work, including a Common Ground Award and a Teen Choice Award.
As with most highly publicized tragedies, the Newtown massacre has attracted a wave of conspiracy theorists, though the extent seems particularly egregious ― thanks in part thanks to Infowars founder and notorious President Trump ally Alex Jones. For Lewis, the conspiracy theory movement provides another opportunity to choose love.
“Every once in a while, I’ll get an email,” she said. “One time, it said, ‘You better hope that you’re dead before America finds out the wool that you’re pulling over their eyes.’”
At the time, Lewis had been speaking to officials from a school in Texas where a bullied student recently died by suicide. She was struggling to think of how she could relate to this experience and connect with the other students.
“All of a sudden it hit me. ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m being bullied by the conspiracy theorist! This is how I can get to those kids,’” Lewis recalled thinking. She also realized that her message of “choosing love” could apply to anything. She responded to the cyberbullying email to share how the sender helped her.
Lewis said she feels compassion for those who don’t have the coping skills or resilience to accept the world’s darker realities. “You don’t know anything about a bully’s life and why they’re in so much pain and why they’re trying to off-put pain on somebody else,” she said.
Dec. 14 is always a difficult day for Lewis. This year, she has no big plans other than to visit Jesse’s grave. “A lot of times we will bring a bunch of balloons with messages and release them up into the sky. I don’t really know what we’ll do this year.”
When stories of deadly mass shootings make news headlines, Lewis said she feels frustrated but even more motivated to promote SEL as a way to proactively prevent these tragedies.
“After Jesse’s death, the best thing that was ever said to me was, ‘There are no words’ ― because there really are no words to describe a loss like that,” said Lewis. “In those moments, I cry and then I make myself a cup of tea, and I double down on my efforts in the Chose Love Movement.”
She added, “This foundation is my way of being a part of the solution to the issues that we’re seeing today because I don’t want anyone else to have to suffer as I and the other Sandy Hook parents have.”
Lewis calls on all parents to be part of the solution by making sure more schools have SEL programs. “I never thought something like this would happen to my child,” she recalled. “Nothing can ever happen to your child ― that’s like something you read on the cover of People Magazine. But, it never happens to you ... until you’re on the cover of People Magazine.”
Nicole Hockley, Mother Of Dylan Hockley, And Mark Barden, Father Of Daniel Barden
In the years following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley have been some of the most outspoken parents of victims.
Hockley and Barden each had a 6-year-old boy at the school. Barden told HuffPost he and his wife, Jackie, were immensely proud of their son, Daniel.
“He had a highly developed sense of awareness and compassion for others,” Barden explained. “It was evident in just about everything he did, from insisting that everybody was seated at the dinner table before anyone took any food because he thought it was right and fair, to rescuing worms from burning in the sun on the sidewalk and putting them in the grass, to holding doors for strangers or connecting with classmates in school. We just thought it was the most beautiful thing.”
Hockley said she and her husband, Ian, describe their son, Dylan, as “pure love” and “the glue” that held their family together. “He was autistic so required a little bit of extra support, loved really deep, firm cuddles and adored his big brother and followed him everywhere,” she recalled. “He had a huge smile and beautiful eyes, and everyone was so in love with him. He was an amazing little boy.”
Just one month after the shooting, on Jan. 14, 2013, Barden and Hockley founded Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit that aims to protect children from gun violence.
“We were both sort of compelled to see if there was a way that we could use our voices to prevent this from happening again to anybody else,” said Barden. Over the past five years, they’ve studied how to best make a sustainable impact and ultimately landed on the idea of prevention. A key focus is teaching people to identify the signs that someone is thinking about hurting themselves or others, for example, and determining how to connect that person with help before a tragedy occurs.
“When we first started as an organization, we didn’t know what we were doing or how we were going to approach it,” Barden explained. In 2013, they lent their voices in support of the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would expand federal background check requirements for gun sales.
“I didn’t think it was going to be so contentious and difficult,” Barden said. “I just figured, well of course that’s something everyone can get behind ― that everyone should have a background check before they purchase a firearm. And the reality is that about 90 percent of Americans agree ... It’s inside the halls of Congress where that common sense and logic seem to break down.”
Following the bill’s failure, Barden and Hockley decided to further study the issue of gun violence, as well as social change throughout history.
While gun violence movements tend to focus on policy and politics, they found that education, grassroots initiatives, community programs and legal activity could be more effective ways to bring about change around such a polarizing and politicized issue.
“We rethought our strategies to look at this through a different lens and thought, ‘How can we get into the stream before the gun is even in the equation and get around that argument and do this work in a way that will actually save lives?’” Barden said.
By driving behavioral change as a grassroots movement, Barden and Hockley believe Sandy Hook Promise will make the policy element easier to achieve in the future. The organization offers four research-based programs focused on preventing gun violence that can stand alone or work in tandem: Start With Hello, Say Something, Signs of Suicide and Safety Assessment & Intervention.
“I’m amazed at the level of engagement people embrace our programs with,” said Barden. “We have evidence that we’ve stopped school shootings that were in the planning processes, we’ve averted suicides, we’ve brought down bullying numbers and we’ve captured other social issues like cutting and eating disorders.”
“We’re constantly evaluating, re-evaluating and gathering information on what’s working, what’s not working, what could be done better and how to do that,” he added.
One of the most impactful Sandy Hook Promise initiatives was a PSA titled “Evan,” which the organization released in December 2016 in conjunction with its “Know the Signs” campaign. The video, meant to show how signs of an at-risk individual could be easily overlooked, racked up more than 145 million views in just three weeks and dominated conversations around gun violence prevention. Their latest PSA, “Tomorrow’s News,” similarly revolves around the idea of preventing shootings by recognizing the signs of violence and at-risk individuals.
“It empowers people to realize that they can be part of this and can take actions to save lives,” said Barden. In honor of the five-year anniversary of the Newtown shooting, Sheryl Crow released a song called “The Dreaming Kind” as a tribute to those working at Sandy Hook Promise.
Working on Sandy Hook Promise can be challenging, particularly in times when tragic shootings seem to be a fixture in national news.
“Like any person who hears about another mass shooting, there is an absolute gut punch and a heartbreak to know that it’s happened again,” Hockley said, adding that it takes on an extra layer of heartbreak when she learns a shooting might’ve been prevented if those who knew the shooter hadn’t missed the signs.
“It also just brings us straight back to losing our children and knowing what that feels like, tearing that scab off of your heart all over again,” said the mom. “And knowing that these poor families and communities that are impacted, that they have a long and endlessly heartbreaking journey ahead of them.”
Self-care is an important but difficult thing for Hockley to prioritize.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really properly grieved Dylan because I still find it too hard to accept that he’s gone,” she explained, adding that she still sees a therapist and lately has been trying out yoga. “You have to be gentle with yourself, and for me, I’ve had to find space to forgive myself because I couldn’t save my son.”
Barden said he tries to focus on the life-saving impact of their organization during difficult times. “For me, every minute is just laced with the sadness that my little boy is gone forever,” he said. As a stay-at-home dad, Barden formed a strong bond with his children. “I focus a lot of time and attention to being there for my surviving children and for my wife.”
He added, “It’s easy to feel defeated in those moments when you’re reckoning with the news and the shootings continue to happen. But the work that we’re doing with Sandy Hook Promise provides me with a tremendous amount of inspiration and encouragement that I can honor my son by helping others.”
Barden’s older son, James, is now 17 years old and a senior in high school, and his daughter, Natalie, is 15 and a sophomore. Although they now lead active lives filled with extracurricular and social activities, Daniel’s siblings make time to volunteer and participate in Sandy Hook Promise activities when they can.
Hockley’s older son, Jake, is now 13 and keeps up with the organization but hasn’t yet gotten directly involved. “I want to make sure that he creates his own path in life and honors Dylan the way he wants to honor him,” she said.
Although conspiracy theorists often attack their organization, Barden and Hockley said they don’t have time to pay them any mind. “They can grind themselves into the ground with their nonsense,” said Barden. “I’m too busy doing important work.”
On Dec. 14, Barden said he goes “off the radar.” Hockley will also do something private with her family, likely involving volunteer services.
As for the future of Sandy Hook Promise, Hockley said they plan to continue preventing violence before it starts and teaching people to recognize signs of at-risk individuals.
“We are growing and scaling at an exponential rate,” she said. “We launched our first pilot program in November 2014, and three years later, we’ve already trained 2.5 million kids and adults at over 4,000 schools in all 50 states.” In addition to reaching more kids, they also hope to pass legislation around mental health, wellness and gun safety and quantify the impact of their programs through research.
The founders take the word “promise” in their organization’s name very seriously. Said Barden, “It is our promise to devote the rest of our lives to being the best that we can at preventing this from happening again.”
Alissa Parker, Mother of Emilie Parker, And Michele Gay, Mother of Josephine Gay
Alissa Parker and Michele Gay did not know each other before that fateful December day that turned their lives upside down. Both women lost daughters in the shooting ― Parker’s 6-year-old Emilie and Gay’s 7-year-old Josephine.
“Emilie was so friendly and thoughtful,” Parker told HuffPost. The first-grader loved art, reading and cheering people up when they were sad.
Josephine loved to snuggle and watch movies. Although she was nonverbal, Gay said her daughter had a beautiful way of communicating with her eyes, warm hugs and loving spirit.
“Our daughters were very positive forces in the world, and they remain an important focal point of both of our families,” said Gay.
After the shooting, the two women were processing what had happened and started to ask a lot of questions, many of which revolved around the safety of their children’s schools.
“How could it be that in this day and age, what we had suffered can still happen? That moment, it was like an ah-ha for us about where we needed to devote our energy,” said Gay. “To make our hindsight the foresight of others. To help others look at what we experienced and utilize the lessons that we learned and make sure that their communities are safer.”
Gay and Parker founded Safe and Sound Schools to create more secure learning environments for young people.
Safe and Sound Schools takes a comprehensive community-based approach to school safety issues, from security to bullying to drug use and beyond.
“Alissa and I looked at these problems and talked with a lot of security and safety professionals, psychologists, mental health advocates and teachers,” said Gay. “One thing everybody agreed on was the need for increased awareness and education to better inform our practices.”
Safe and Sound Schools takes a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to safety. Gay and Parker try to get various stakeholders in schools on the same page and plan security measures together. They tackle issues like classroom door locks and safety drills and have created free toolkits to inform schools and communities about how to make safer environments for children.
Part of Safe and Sound Schools’ collaborative approach involves taking children’s mental health into account, as heightened security can be frightening for young students when not implemented carefully. Gay and Parker advocate for keeping discussions about safety age-appropriate and using child-friendly language. They also recommend starting early to normalize these basic concepts without paralyzing children with fear.
“School safety is ever-evolving and you always have to be working on it,” said Parker. “There’s no finish line. It’s just part of the living, breathing entity of schools. They have to always be continually developing and evaluating their systems and what needs to be improved.”
For Gay and Parker, improving school safety makes them feel connected to their daughters. “They loved school. School was their world. It’s where all their people were, their friends, their beloved teachers, and they were these joyful forces in the world. That’s what we wanted to protect,” said Gay.
It also feels like an attainable goal and a space where they can be part of meaningful solutions. “We didn’t feel that joining another divisive argument was going to get us anywhere,” said Gay. “We’ve all seen, unfortunately, throughout our lifetimes what happens after there is a big tragedy. It’s the same cyclical pattern of cries for change, new laws and impassioned speeches, hand-wringing and heart-wrenching, and all of those things, and then in the end, you know people end up in the same place.”
“One of the benefits to our approach is that our audience is everyone. We don’t shut out half the country on our opinions. Everyone can agree that we can do better in our schools to make them safer, so everyone can be involved,” added Parker. “So, to us, that ended up being an advantage to being able to speak to all audiences and getting them on board to help. It’s really all hands on deck, so we cannot afford to marginalize or divide or make this into an argument. Fortunately most Americans really care deeply about our communities, our schools, our children.”
“We remember the shock and the paralysis, and just being utterly lost, when your world has crumbled before you. Just not really even knowing what to do next.”
Still, seeing the number of mass shootings in the news this year has been difficult for the mothers.
“It feels like this year, especially, we’ve had more than our share of natural disasters, tragedies, and acts of violence,” said Gay. “My heart always goes first to the people that are suffering, because that’s really close to home for us. We remember the shock and the paralysis, and just being utterly lost, when your world has crumbled before you. Just not really even knowing what to do next. So we can’t help but think of them and pray for them and know a long road there is ahead.”
In the aftermath of similar tragedies, Gay said they try to be respectful and give victims’ families the space to grieve. When they do meet other families who’ve been in their shoes, they share their experiences and let them know they aren’t alone.
“I think a lot of times people think there needs to be a grand gesture, but often just being present for another human being is the most profound thing you can do for them,” said Gay.
Gay and Parker also lean on each other for support during difficult times.
“We have a little see-saw going, because there’s no real predictability on this road,” said Gay. “There are times when you feel a little stronger and you feel like you’re making some headway, and then there are times when you just need to curl up in a ball in bed for a while.”
She added, “To have somebody so closely beside you on this journey has been an incredible blessing, because we sort of carry the cross for each other every once in a while. When I’m too weak, I can hand it over to Alissa for a while and vice versa.”
As for the conspiracy theorists, Gay said it’s shocking and heartbreaking to see their “atrocious” and “jaw-dropping” comments, but she and Parker have opted not to take the bait or give them any attention.
“As tempting as it is to correct someone when they are spreading a lie or some wild theory or idea, it really doesn’t serve us to engage with that.” said Gay. “They’re not a part of our lives. They didn’t know our beautiful children, and it is what it is.”
The mom added that she also thinks that their school safety cause isn’t as enticing to conspiracy theorists as the gun control debate.
Gay and Parker no longer live in Newtown. Parker, her husband, Robbie, and their daughters, Samantha and Madeline, moved back to the Pacific Northwest, where they’d lived for a short time when the girls were younger. Samantha and Madeline are in elementary school and are involved in the cause of school safety “in a very developmentally appropriate way,” said Parker.
Gay’s daughters, Sophia and Marie, are in high school now. She and her husband, Bob, relocated their family to Massachusetts in 2013 ― a move that had been planned before the tragedy. “My daughters have been kind of on this journey alongside me, so it’s really kind of exciting to hear them talk about school safety issues with their teachers, their classmates, their school resource officer. They’re little ambassadors all on their own,” she said.
Dec. 14 is a sacred day for Gay and Parker. “In the weeks leading up to it, we kind of start shutting off,” Parker explained, adding they choose not to work and don’t schedule any distractions or interviews.
“It takes a lot of energy to get through those days and take care of each other,” said Gay. “My family is blessed because Josephine’s birthday is Dec. 11, so she’s given us this eternal positive focus for December. We put a lot of energy into celebrating her birthday. We tie purple balloons on our mailboxes, and all of our neighbors do it too. We go to mass early in the morning and we just spend quiet family time together. We have a birthday cake and share our memories.”
Parker said her family also takes the time to retreat from reality. “We tend to go out of town, and just go somewhere private where our family can find that peace and that place of meditation for us to really be respectful of what happened to them,” she explained.
Although they no longer live in Newtown, Gay and Parker still keep up with many of the other families of victims. They have a group text chain, check in on social media and support one another’s causes.
“There’s a tremendous amount of great work being done by so many of these families, so many wonderful missions and different causes,” said Gay. “And I think it’s important to recognize that everyone’s on their own unique journey. No two of us are alike in that.”
Rebecca Kowalski, Mother Of Chase Kowalski
Rebecca Kowalski’s 7-year-old son Chase was in the same class as Daniel Barden, Josephine Gay and Emilie Parker.
“Chase was very caring and sweet. In some respects, he was shy, but he gained confidence and could be very outgoing,” Kowalski told HuffPost. “He would try anything, he would do anything. He loved to swim, he loved to bike, and he loved to run.”
He especially enjoyed doing all three activities together in triathlons for kids. Chase ran his first track event, a 50-meter run, when he was just shy of 3 years old. He enjoyed it so much that he asked to do a 100-meter run and then a 400-meter run. Toward the end of the latter race, he started to tire out, but an older boy ran back, took him by the hand and helped him reach the finish line.
What that little boy did for Chase is the type of thing Chase would do for others. After his death, Kowalski and her husband Stephen established the CMAK Foundation ― CMAK for Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski.
In partnership with the YMCA, the CMAK Foundation offers Race4Chase, a free six-week training program for kids who are interested in triathlons. They get the opportunity to swim, run and bike in groups led by coaches. If they don’t have a bicycle, another partner organization will donate one for free.
“We wanted to be able to honor his spirit and the idea that, like that little boy who helped him, he would be helping all of these children by virtually holding their hands to help them complete a triathlon,” Kowalski explained.
After starting with three programs in Connecticut in 2013, they’re now on track to have a total of 25 programs across three different states. Kowalski said the triathlon program has had a positive effect on participants beyond athletic achievement. “Children that have issues with bullying and low self-esteem can change their lives through physical activity,” she noted, adding that triathlons helped Chase, who had a speech delay, gain confidence and become more talkative.
“We make the training program fun for the kids,” Kowalski added. “A triathlon is an individual sport, but we’ve found with the program and the way the coaches train these kids that they come together as a group and cheer each other on like their own little family.”
On race day, the kids generally don’t care if they win or lose but just want to finish. And if someone from their training group makes podium, they’re overjoyed for their teammate. “There are all sorts of great things that just boost the self-esteem and make these kids feel like, if they can do a triathlon, they can do anything. It’s very empowering,” said Kowalski.
Race4Chase is a family affair. Kowalski’s 16-year-old daughter, Erin, helps coach and train the kids at one site, and her 19-year-old, Brittany, works behind the scenes on social media campaigns and fundraising. The family still lives in Newtown.
Honoring Chase’s legacy has impacted Kowalski’s personal athletic journey as well. With the support of friends, the mom trained and competed in her first triathlon in 2015. She’s taken kickboxing classes, participated in countless 5K races and continues to train for potential future triathlons.
“I’ve found that the running, swimming and biking all help me deal with the grief that we still experience on a daily basis,” said Kowalski. “You never know when something’s gonna trigger it. It’s a nice way to kind of keep it at bay and be able to manage any triggers that do happen so I don’t fall apart.”
With the scourge of horrific mass shootings that make headlines, it’s hard to avoid those triggers.
“When you first see it on the news, it turns your stomach. It makes you think of the poor families of the victims,” Kowalski said. “You know exactly how they feel. I sent my son to school. He was going to be safe. And he never came home. People go to the mall, people go to church, people go to a concert, and you don’t know if you’re going to come home. It’s very disheartening.”
The conspiracy theorists have also made their presence known to her. One man called her house and told her that he’d stolen the plaque from Chase’s memorial playground. (He had not.) “I hung up and didn’t engage with it,” said Kowalski. “I feel bad for the people that do engage with it, because it’s a no-win battle. You’re not going to convince them to think any differently, so why bother?”
The mom added that she thinks the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists are “very sick” and cruel. “My son was a living, breathing, part of me. I live my life without him every day, and to have somebody say that I was an actor and he’s alive or it wasn’t true, that it didn’t happen ... they don’t realize how hurtful they are when they say those things. I will not validate their thoughts, and I would never wish on them the grief that we have with our loss. We suffer the loss of our children but we also suffer the backlash of the lies that they spread.”
On the anniversary of Chase’s death, the Kowalski family usually tries to be out of town. In the past, they’ve gone on bike rides and scattered Chase’s ashes in Hawaii. This year, they planned a trip to Aruba.
Honoring Chase’s memory is part of the healing journey. “Grief is such an individualized process. Everyone’s journey is so different,” said Kowalski, noting that although every day can be a struggle, she chooses to “be the change” she wishes to see in the world.
“We’ll never forget Chase. We love him, and we live on with him deeply embedded in our hearts,” she added. “And with what we do, we hope to be an influence on children and their families in such a positive way so that through the circle of love and peace, we can make a difference.”
This piece has since been updated.