How the Families of Sandy Hook Are Connecting Communities in the Wake of Tragedy
Advocacy In the years since 20 first-graders and six educators were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., families of the victims have been hard at work.
Mark Barden’s seven-year-old son Daniel died at Sandy Hook. “The shock becomes who you are,” he says. “It doesn’t wear off. It never goes away. It redefines your existence from that moment on.” Barden knew early on he wanted to make something positive out of the tragedy. “It developed into the recognition that I had the ability to do actual good for other people,” he says.
That’s why Barden helped found Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a national nonprofit organization focusing on protecting children and preventing gun violence.
SHP started in 2014 in a church basement. So far, they’ve trained 2 million kids to spot warning signs of violence and predict they’ll have trained 25 million youth and adults by 2026. “We know we can’t catch everything, but we know these programs will help,” says Nicole Hockley, the SHP’s Managing Director, whose six-year-old son Dylan was killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy.
“What happened at Sandy Hook was absolutely preventable,” says Barden. “We take that and move forward from there. It’s too late for us, but we’ll save others.”
SHP wants to prevent violence by identifying and helping at-risk individuals. They offer outreach programs, including their annual Start With Hello Call-to-Action Week.
“We’ve put our hearts and souls into this for four and a half years.”
The free program teaches students to reach out to their peers and build connections at school and in the community. The goal is to help all students feel welcome and accepted, especially those who may feel alone or rejected. Nearly 1100 schools participated in last year’s Start With Hello week, including Burnet Middle School in Burnet, Texas, which has 730 students.
“It’s all about helping people not feel socially isolated and getting to the point of prevention, instead of reaction,” says Burnet Middle School English teacher, Sara Te.
“My first thought was ‘could this be someone in my school?’ says 14-year-old Ileanna Villalobos, a former Burnet Middle School student, who plans to implement SHP programs at her high school this year. “This could be someone at any school.”
The week-long program included a day when students and faculty wore name tags, a bingo game where students had to fill out bingo cards by talking with someone they didn’t know and a lunch mix-it-up where students were given tickets to sit at specific tables with people they didn’t know.
Zo'e Nicholl, an eighth grader at Burnet Middle School, sat next to a guy she recognized from Algebra class. They started talking that day and have become friends. “Start With Hello gave me a new understanding of how to talk to people, communicate and understand leadership, and have less social awkwardness,” says Nicholl, who will help lead the program this year.
After the outreach week, kids reported at risk students, including one who was suicidal and another who was cutting. Burnet Middle School was SHP’s 2017 Start With Hello grand prize winner. They received $2500 to grow the program, which is expanding district-wide.
Barden is grateful the programs are so well received. “For me, it’s everything,” he says. “We’ve put our hearts and souls into this for four and a half years, and to hear that validation come back from the people affected the most, that’s the ultimate achievement.”