5 years after Parkland, families cope through good works
PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — After a gunman murdered 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School five years ago Tuesday, their families were left with a burning question: How do we go on with our lives while honoring our loved one’s memory?
Most have answered by starting foundations or performing other charitable work dedicated to a variety of causes: protecting students; building parks and gardens; providing scholarships; fighting disease and helping the disabled; sending kids to camp; teaching children to swim, dance, create art or play music and sports; and tightening gun laws.
“For all of them, their biggest fear was that their loved one would be forgotten,” said Florida state Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, who was Parkland’s mayor in 2018 when the shooting happened. “They do this work to keep their spirit alive.”
Still, she said, “it is really important to remember that no matter how many ‘good things’ have come out of the aftermath, no one is ever the same again. No one loses that pain.”
Most of the families also belong to their group, Stand With Parkland. Putting aside political differences, those families work with lawmakers nationally to see tougher school safety regulations enacted, train administrators to conduct more thorough threat assessments and assure threats reported to the FBI are passed to local law enforcement. The group also promotes gun safety.
“When we listen to each other, politics doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” said Philip Schentrup, who lost his 16-year-old daughter Carmen in the shooting. “If you realize that 90% of the stuff in this world we agree on, it is not hard to make positive change.”
Some family projects have a political bent, but most don’t. Overall, millions of dollars have been raised.
These are their causes:
After losing their 14-year-old daughter Alyssa, Ilan and Lori Alhadeff began their foundation, Make Our Schools Safe. It advocates in state legislatures for “Alyssa’s Law,” which requires that teachers receive panic buttons tied directly to law enforcement. The law has been enacted in Florida, New York and New Jersey, and it is being considered federally and in several states.
The foundation has also distributed to schools kits for treating gunshot victims, and it started high school Make Our Schools Safe clubs to give students a voice and instruction on violence-prevention.
“We want to do everything that we can to create a safer school environment,” said Lori Alhadeff, who was elected to the Broward County school board nine months after the shooting. She is now its chairwoman. “We want to make sure that (children) are protected and that they come home alive.”
She said being on the school board and running the foundation “turned my pain and grief into action.”
Her daughter frequented the beach, excelled in math and Spanish, was a gifted writer and captain of her soccer team. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
“Through Alyssa’s Law, I know Alyssa is saving a lot of lives,” she said.
Geography teacher and cross country coach Scott Beigel died a hero, shot as he herded panicked students into his classroom, where they all survived. In a few months, Beigel, 35, would have been working as a summer camp counselor. He loved camp, attending every year since he was 6.
“(Camp) was Scott’s magic place,” his mother, Linda Beigel Schulman, said. “He could be a kid. He could be whoever he wanted to be.”
So, two days after her son’s murder, she and Beigel’s stepfather, Michael Schulman, started the Scott J. Beigel Memorial Fund, which pays for underprivileged children touched by gun violence to attend sleep-away camp — and return annually if they maintain good grades and stay out of trouble. This summer, 250 children will participate.
“I want to keep the kids away from drugs and gangs. I want to do it so they don’t have to be rehabilitated after they are incarcerated,” his mother said. “Every one of those kids has a piece of Scott’s heart.”
Martin Duque, 14, was born in Mexico but wanted to become a U.S. Navy Seal; he belonged to the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. He loved sports and was a devoted churchgoer. His family has no known foundation or charity and has kept out of the public eye.
“He was a smart kid who always helped others even before himself,” his family said in a statement that was read at the shooter’s trial. “His favorite movie was ‘Star Wars.’ He was basically an old soul. His family loved him in every situation and he would tell his parents that when he grew up, he would buy them a house. We miss him very much.”
Nick Dworet was a star swimmer who loved to promote his sport. The night before the 17-year-old died, he spoke to the younger swimmers at his club to encourage them. That’s why his parents, Mitch and Annika Dworet, have focused the Nicholas Dworet Memorial Fund on swimming and water safety.
The fund provides college scholarships to swimmers and divers in South Florida and at Indianapolis University, where Nick Dworet planned to compete. It organizes training days for swimmers, works with the Special Olympics and offers swimming lessons for underprivileged children.
“We are much smaller than a lot of the other charities and foundations of the other families,” said Joseph Chiarella, the fund’s treasurer. “But we plan to expand as needed and requested.”
Aaron Feis, a security guard and assistant football coach, hurried to the building after being told a gunman was inside, but he was shot just as he got to the door. The 37-year-old, who had graduated from Stoneman Douglas, received the National Football Foundation’s gold medal for his actions.
His parents started a foundation in his name that assisted needy students with supplies and other essentials. But the family said it became too much for them to handle alone during the pandemic and went inactive. Feis, Scott Beigel and Chris Hixon, the school’s athletic director and wrestling coach who was also killed in the attack, were honored at the 2018 ESPY Awards as the national coaches of the year.
In a statement read at the shooter’s trial, his widow, Melissa Feis, said they met when she was 16 at a church service, and over the next two decades he “knew he could make a difference in the lives of others.”
“Aaron had a knack for putting others at ease. His presence, jovial smile and humor made him a person others sought to be around,” she wrote.
Fred and Jennifer Guttenberg started Orange Ribbons for Jaime in honor of their 14-year-old daughter who loved dance and dogs and planned to become a pediatric physical therapist. The name comes from the thousands of orange ribbons her dance troupe made after Jaime’s murder — orange was her color. They were worn by dance companies nationwide, including by the Broadway cast of “Hamilton.”
The charity provides college scholarships to dancers, special needs children and students who want to go into helping fields, like physical therapy.
The foundation is also starting “Paws of Love,” which will give puppies and a free year of dog supplies and vet care to families affected by gun violence. Fred Guttenberg said his youngest dog, which was 4 months old when Jaime was killed, “saved my family” by giving the couple and their son something to care for.
“I can’t see myself doing the political activist thing indefinitely,” said Guttenberg, who has become a national spokesman for stronger gun laws. “But honoring my daughter and ensuring that this country remembers who she was and why she mattered is something I’ll never stop doing.”
Athletic director and wrestling coach Chris Hixon died a hero — the first person who tried to stop the shooter. The 49-year-old Navy veteran charged directly at him, but he was hit by gunfire and fell to the floor. He took cover in an alcove, but he was shot again. He tried to get to his feet for several minutes before law enforcement came to his aid.
To honor him, his family started the Chris Hixon Foundation, which gives scholarships annually to five Broward County athletes. His son, Tom, said the charity soon hopes to offer sports camps, likely for students with special needs, and wrestling tournaments that offer small scholarships to the winners.
Tom Hixon said the family focused on scholarships for athletes to honor the thousands his father inspired over his 27-year career to continue their educations.
“He knew it wasn’t just about sports — he stressed academics, too,” Hixon said.
Luke Hoyer, 15, loved sports, and his mother, Gena, works with foster children. So she and her husband, Tom, combined those two interests for the Luke Hoyer Athletic Fund, which pays for foster children to participate in travel league sports and martial arts and dance lessons. Those can cost more than $1,000 for each child, something foster parents usually can’t afford and don’t get reimbursed for.
Luke was known for his dry humor and was jokingly called “the king of the one-word answer.”
“I’ve always liked sports as a way to help kids as a mini life lesson,” Tom Hoyer said. “The fact that Luke played sports and (his mother) knew that these kids couldn’t go into these programs, it seemed like a good fit and the right thing to do.”
Cara Loughran adored all things Irish. The 14-year-old, who performed Irish dance, was set to appear in a St. Patrick’s Day festival the month after her death. Her family was also planning a trip that summer to the island nation, where some of her relatives live.
The family established Cara Dances On, which provides college scholarships for students at the dance studio where she took lessons. Her mother declined comment.
“She loved the beach, she loved to surf and, most of all, she loved spending time with her family,” a statement read by a family friend at the shooter’s trial said. “Losing Cara has left a crushing absence in their lives.”
Gina Montalto spent much of her time reading, studying and drawing. And she was an enthusiastic Girl Scout, posthumously receiving the group’s highest rank, the Gold Award.
Sometimes the 14-year-old with straight A’s and bright personality wanted to be a veterinarian; other times she wanted to design attractions for Walt Disney World. Her parents, Tony and Jennifer Montalto, through the Gina Rose Montalto Memorial Foundation, are covering all those interests by helping dozens of college students and others.
The foundation provides scholarships to Girl Scouts, nursing students and students in science, technology, math and the arts. There have also been scholarships for Stoneman Douglas grads, even to some who simply demonstrated kindness. The foundation also hosts a ceremony for South Florida Girl Scouts who have received their Silver Award — the highest rank a middle schooler can achieve — and supports projects where Gina volunteered, including groups that help children with special needs.
As part of the process, the scholarship recipients learn about Gina and what she stood for, her father said. That helps the family cope.
“We ask that they keep in touch with us at least once a year to let us know how they are progressing,” he said. “This is a way to keep Gina’s light shining.”
Manuel and Patricia Oliver’s goal with their foundation, Change the Ref, is to challenge the political influence of the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers. They say the firearms industry has bought and intimidated politicians, leading to the death of their 17-year-old son, Joaquin, who was known for his writing and his ability to make friends. The foundation’s name comes from something Joaquin would say after bad calls cost his basketball team a game — that nothing would change without new refs.
“Once we started looking at what the root cause of this issue (was), we saw that these ‘referees’ that we elect are not making the right calls, so we don’t have a fair game,” Manuel Oliver said.
The couple travels the country in a modified school bus emblazoned with “Stop Gun Violence” to directly confront politicians. For example, last year the foundation rented 52 school buses and drove them to the Houston office of Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the empty seats representing children fatally shot.
They also go after Democrats, including President Joe Biden. Invited to a gun bill signing at the White House last year, Manuel Oliver shouted “You have to do more!” at Biden before being escorted out.
Patricia Oliver said because their son died in a school shooting, they have a platform that parents whose children died in everyday gun violence don’t have.
“It is not only school shootings we need to pay attention to — that is a very selfish way to see it. This is beyond school shootings,” she said.
After Ryan Petty’s 14-year-old daughter Alaina was murdered, he was appointed to the state commission that investigated why the shooting happened and how it could have been prevented.
As he learned what led up to it, he became convinced the answer isn’t tighter gun laws, which he says don’t work, but more effective intervention and communication by school administrators, mental health providers and law enforcement. Many people reported the Parkland shooter’s threats, but no authorities acted or shared information.
In response, Petty and his wife, Kelly, started The WalkUp Foundation, which has worked with government, law enforcement and school officials to improve communication so potential shooters are identified. He points to Secret Service findings that almost all school shooters showed “disturbing behaviors” well before acting.
He said the idea isn’t to arrest more students, but to get them help.
“If those were reported and acted on by authorities, you could divert that person off the pathway to violence, and we think that is the best outcome for everyone,” Petty said.
Alaina did volunteer work through her church, including cleanup after 2017′s Hurricane Irma, and took part in the ROTC. She loved watching crime shows on TV, Spanish music and her dogs, and she wanted to be a mom.
“I couldn’t let (Alaina’s) death just pass by and not try to prevent that from happening to another family,” her father said.
Andrew Pollack believes firmly his 18-year-old daughter Meadow and the five others who died on the third floor of the attacked classroom building would have lived if the school’s sheriff’s deputy had charged inside to confront the shooter on the first floor instead of staying outside.
His foundation, Meadow’s Movement, recently began giving backpacks to school police and security officers that convert almost instantly into bullet-resistant vests, unfolding in one motion over the head. That also pulls onto the officers’ chest a rifle with a stock that unfolds — they won’t have to confront a well-armed shooter with just a handgun. When not in use, the backpack keeps the rifle hidden from students it might scare.
“It gives (officers) within a second something ... that could even the playing field,” said Pollack, who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention. Still, he doesn’t think Parkland’s deputy, who is facing criminal charges for his inaction, would have gone in with a vest and rifle, calling him an obscenity.
His daughter, who wanted to be a lawyer, was known for her outgoing personality and her love of working out. To honor her love of exercise and fun, the foundation also builds playgrounds, including one costing $1 million not far from Stoneman Douglas.
“It helps with the healing, seeing the kids playing and smiling,” he said.
When Helena Ramsay was a little girl, she would go with her mother to the community garden in the park near their home to help plant vegetables, build the beds and paint signs. That made the 17-year-old, who had come to the United States as a toddler from Great Britain, a champion of environmental causes, said her mother, Anne Ramsay, who helped manage the garden.
She said when the shooting happened, there was still one section of the garden that wasn’t being used. Ramsay said one day she was sitting there, reading and trying to find comfort, when a cardinal sat on the fence and began singing to her.
“I said, ‘OK God, that’s my Helena communicating with me,’ ” she said.
That was when she decided to make that section a memorial garden for her daughter, a clarinet player who was tall, graceful and athletic, and a participant in Model United Nations.
Visitors to Helena’s section are greeted by a monument featuring a smiling portrait of her and a dedication to those who died in the shooting. Their names are engraved on the back. The garden features benches for meditating, a small stone labyrinth, or maze, various flowers and 17 bamboo trees. People use the area to do yoga, exercise, read or relax.
Ramsay said while some families have been more vocal and public over the years, planting the garden was more her style. Helena’s death was just one of a string of tragedies to hit the family in recent years, including the deaths of Anne Ramsay’s parents and the loss of a nephew in another shooting.
“I needed peace and quiet, I needed healing, and I found that in this niche,” she said.
After his 14-year-old son Alex died, Max Schachter ended his insurance practice and made promoting school safety his full-time mission. He joined the state commission with Ryan Petty and started Safe Schools for Alex, traveling the country learning the best security practices and presenting those to school districts, law enforcement and government officials. The foundation’s website also has a dashboard where parents in several states can examine safety data for their child’s school.
It lets them see if there is a problem — or if their school’s administrators are obviously hiding problems, as Stoneman Douglas’ did. On annual safety reports between 2014 and 2017, Stoneman Douglas administrators claimed their 3,200 students committed zero acts of bullying and three acts of vandalism, for example.
“Alex was murdered in an unsafe school,” Schachter said. “I thought this is the area where I could have the biggest impact. It is not partisan. It is not controversial. School safety is something everyone should be able to rally behind.”
The foundation also provides online one-on-one lessons for underprivileged middle school band members. Alex, who loved cars and planned to attend the University of Connecticut, played trombone in the Stoneman Douglas band, which had won the state halftime show competition shortly before his murder.
“It is one of my happiest memories,” Schachter said.
Carmen Schentrup had a laser focus on her future — a straight-A student and National Merit Scholarship finalist, she planned to become a doctor who researched amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The devastating disease, which slowly destroys a person’s bodily functions, had taken two people close to her: a great aunt and a choir director. Carmen, 16, wanted to find its cure.
That’s why her parents, Philip and April, started the Carmen Schentrup ALS Research Fund, also known as “Carmen’s Dream,” through the ALS Foundation. Seeded with the money their daughter left in her savings account, it has now raised more than $250,000 for the ALS Foundation.
“It is a very positive outcome to see people supporting Carmen’s Dream and trying to make the world a better place,” her father said.
Peter Wang, an ROTC member, dreamed of attending the United States Military Academy and becoming a pilot. After the 15-year-old’s death, the academy accepted his admission, having an Army officer deliver the letter to his parents.
The family has started the Peter Wang Foundation, which offers a scholarship to help disadvantaged students from the local Chinese-American community and makes charitable donations to organizations Peter supported. A foundation spokesman said Wang’s mother, Linda Wang, is currently in China and unavailable for comment.
“I don’t know how to use language to express the pain of losing my oldest son, Peter,” his mother said in a statement read at the shooter’s trial. “He had always made me so proud. I have four tattoos of Peter on my body. I get one every year on Feb. 14 to symbolize that he is still with me.”