Creating a Safer World for Our Children

Los Angeles Police Officers lead children to safety after shooting rampage at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, August 10, 1999 (Hans Gutknecht/LA Daily News)

This past Friday, I heard about the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The news commentators reflected on the recent mass shootings in Oregon, Tucson, Wisconsin, and Virginia Tech. Some talked about where it all began—Columbine High in Colorado. For me, a mother and now a grandmother, the horror evoked the memory of the shootings that took place on August 1999 at a summer day camp at my local Jewish Community Center, one of the many Los Angles centers that my husband directed. A Neo Nazi had entered the building and shot several four year old children, a camp counselor and a secretary. Though one child was severely injured, everyone survived except a U.S. Postal worker, Joseph Ileto, who was shot when the gunman left the center. Sadly 20 young children and six adults did not survive the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. My heart goes out to the parents of these children and their community. It is a national tragedy that grieves us all and scars the psyche of the survivors.

In the days following the shooting at the Jewish Community Center, I was asked to work at the camp as several of the counselors needed time to deal with the trauma they had just experienced. These young teenagers had been responsible for leading so many children to safety. As a mom and early childhood educator, I was struck by the image of children saving children and I immediately agreed to help. This was the JCC where my own children had gone to nursery school and where my cousin’s son was currently a camper. I knew I wanted to be there to comfort children in any way that I could.  I noticed in the subsequent days that several of the children would flinch at loud noises—a car back firing, a helicopter whirring overhead, a door slamming. They were certain that the “bad man” had returned. One day when I was holding a little girl in my lap she pointed to a scab which was obviously from a skinned knee. “That’s where the bad monster shot me,” she said. I nodded and held her close. As part of the healing process the camp decided to celebrate Jewish life by having a holiday fair for the children. I was asked to work on Passover and decided to create a story to help children confront their fears and feel empowered. It is about a small frog who finds himself in Pharaoh’s palace during the plagues of Egypt. While Pharaoh rids the palace of frogs, the littlest frog is very afraid, he hides under the bed and that’s where he stays. At the end of the story, when a tired Pharaoh goes to bed and falls fast asleep the littlest frog gains his courage and jumps on Pharaoh and wakes him with a loud croak. Suddenly Pharaoh is very afraid. He hides under his bed and that’s where he stays. The children loved the story which I told using puppets and later it was published as a book.  For me, writing the story was cathartic and helped me confront my own feelings of powerlessness.

When I spent time with my own family, I tried to imagine the pain and suffering the victims and their families endured after this incident. I remember a sort of numbness took hold of me, my husband and our children. We attended several community rallies to support the victims. My husband and I visited some of the children that were hospitalized. We became friends with the family of the postal worker, Joseph Ileto, a friendship that continues to this day. We watched several national dignitaries, including First Lady, Hilary Clinton,  Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, come to comfort the children. And we were glad to see many local businesses and community members lend their support. My husband spoke on Cable News shows and stressed the need for stronger gun legislation.

One organization that was founded after the shooting, and continues to mobilize mothers, was created by a group of moms supporting common sense gun control. The first Million Mom March on Washington took place on Mother’s Day, May 14, 2000. I have been an occasional participant but I have certainly not done enough. Frustration can lead to indifference as we continue to see gun control laws remain lax and gun violence become routine. Whenever my husband and I attend a rally for the Million Moms, we invariably reconnect with some of the children who were victims of the shooting at the Jewish Community Center and their parents.

This morning’s Los Angeles Times had an article about one of the children who had been shot at the JCC camp and a 16 year counselor who was also wounded. Today, Josh is a 19 year old psychology student in Los Angeles and Mindy is a 29 year old working for the City of Hope in San Francisco. Although they live in different communities, the two young adults maintain a bond after all these years. They contacted each other after the Sandy Hook shooting, another incomprehensible assault on the most innocent in our society, our children. In the article Mindy and Josh admit that the memories of what happened in 1999 still haunt them and each time a senseless shooting occurs it becomes the source of “indescribable emotional and physical pain.” Josh has likened their relationship to a “unique club, a fraternity.” Unfortunately, the membership of this club is increasing. “Most people wonder how many were killed,” Mindy said about the latest shooting at the Newtown elementary school. “But I wonder how many people witnessed this, how many will be haunted by this for the rest of their lives.”

Once again I find myself writing as a way of channeling the sorrow I feel about this latest devastating event. Today I am not only a mother but the grandmother of three beautiful grandchildren, one of whom is a 6 year old first grader. One of my daughters is a teacher and her husband is a teacher working to become an administrator. Like my granddaughter, the children killed at the school were first graders. The six adults killed were school personnel heroically trying to protect the children. Their deaths must be unbearable for their families. The children who attended the school and survived are also victims for they have suffered the loss of their innocence. Their families are victims too, for they will have to deal with the unseen wounds that they and their children will suffer for a lifetime. And we, as a nation, who stood witness to this terrible tragedy upon the most vulnerable in our society, must see those children as our children, those families as our families, that community as our community. Knowing this tragic event is unfolding before the eyes of so many in this nation, I am struck by Mindy’s words “I wonder how many people witnessed this, how many will be haunted by this for the rest of their lives.”

We are all witnesses and should all be haunted by what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary school. Let this be the moment that we come together to take whatever action is required to protect our children from ever again suffering this kind of tragedy. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”-Edmund Burke