By Katherine Elizabeth
The logo used by The Sandy Hook Promise tells the organization’s story. A tiny arm reaches up from the ground, with five little fingers stretching out from a hand to replicate a small green tree. The entire design draws upon the image of a tree sprouting. Hands intended to look like leaves surround each finger. There are 26 of them. Each symbolizes an individual shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school during a tragedy that shook America. Of the 26 killed, 20 were children aged 6 or 7 years.
The Sandy Hook Elementary shootings put Newtown, Conn., on the map of America’s worst tragedies. The Dec. 14, 2012 massacre along with the 1999 Columbine High School terror (13 killed, more than 20 wounded) and 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (32 killed, at least 17 wounded) are calamities people will never forget. There have been other senseless murders on campuses, at movie theaters and workplaces across the country, but Sandy Hook stands out. Little kids, first and second graders were the victims: small children, small arms, small hands and small fingers. Lives cut too short. Together they inspired a logo behind a movement.
Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden each lost a child in the shooting. Hockley’s son, Dylan, was 6 years old. Barden’s son, Daniel, was 7. The parents didn’t know each other before the incident, and only recently found out their kids knew one another from preschool. “Dylan talked about Daniel once,” Hockley told Barden during a call with a reporter for this article. “I didn’t know that,” Barden replied. Today, Hockley and Barden know each other well. They even consider one another family. “I joke Mark is like my older brother, and I’m his annoying younger sister,” says Hockley, with the emphasis on annoying, and younger. Their bond began to form soon after the shooting. A shared objective to prevent further gun violence and other families from having to go through the losses they suffered led to the creation of The Sandy Hook Promise. “Initially it started off with community members, even people who did not lose someone but were part of the community or had a kid at the school,” Hockley says. “Some people had kids who went there previously. We came together and said, ‘We have to do something.’”
It started two days after the tragedy. Local residents took long walks in the hills of Newtown, or met at the local library and or in people’s homes. Newtown is a small community in Connecticut’s Fairfield County. With a little more than 28,000 residents it’s one of those bed and breakfast-type towns that have a feel of Mayberry meets suburbia. That so many people bonded together can be traced to the small-town feel. The shootings cut deep. Being so close to Christmas made it worse. “We started reaching out to impacted families and let them know we had no agenda,” Hockley says. “We just wanted to let them know we’re here if you’re interested.”
America’s long history with gun violence is sometimes devastating to communities and individual families. Events like Sandy Hook can lead directly to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But The Sandy Hook Promise is not a group of doctors or researchers looking to find a cure for PTSD. Its mission is to shed light on how to prevent gun violence. Eighty-five percent of the shooters had a history of being bullied, according to research conducted by the Academy of Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It’s also possible that many shooters had some form of mental illness. Adam Lanza, 20, the shooter at Sandy Hook fit the profile. He allegedly suffered from some sort of mental illness. A final report on the shooting stated Lanza had a familiarity with firearms and an obsession with mass murders, particularly at Columbine in Colorado. There was never a specific motive given why he targeted Sandy Hook Elementary. That same report indicated a former teacher of Lanza’s said he exhibited antisocial behavior, rarely interacted with other students and was obsessed with writing about battles, destruction and war. He did not have a criminal record at the time of the shooting, however.
Barden says Lanza’s background is an example of why The Sandy Hook Promise must educate people on the importance of being aware of actions of friends, family members or strangers. Research shows individuals who commit violent crimes, like mass murder, often exhibit telltale signals. Lanza, who shot and killed his mother, was a ticking time bomb. Stopping the explosion is the impetus behind Sandy Hook’s many campaigns. Its Say Something initiative is designed to train children and teens about recognizing signs, especially in social media, of an individual who may be a threat and to alert an adult for help. Say Something is one of five prevention programs on SHP’s website, including Mental Health First Aid, Safety Assessment and Intervention, Start With Hello and Keep it Safe and Secure. Click on the Get Involved link at SHP’s website and a plethora of information awaits anyone interested in supporting or participating in its efforts.
“Our whole objective is to prevent gun violence and prevent other families from having to deal with loss like we have,” Barden says. “We believe gun violence is preventable violence. It starts with teaching people how to prevent gun violence and teaching people they can make a difference.”
Barden is confidant SHP has made inroads. The organization is currently having studies done on the impact of its work and works with universities, law enforcement and government agencies to conduct research and create curriculum they can share on the road during speaking engagements. He and Hockley make it clear that The Sandy Hook Promise is not opposed to gun ownership, or the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. Its sole focus and concern is gun safety.
“For folks who don’t look at who we are or what we do, it’s quite possible because of the incident we came from we were impacted by gun violence and they would think we’re automatically against guns,” Barden says. “Gun safety is even probably second tier. Our conversation and all that happens is how to prevent gun violence.”
The undertaking has not been easy. Hockley and Barden have signed on to SHP full-time. Their official titles are founder and managing director. Tim Makris, another full-timer, is the third founder and managing director. His child was one of the 12 students who made it out safely from the two classrooms Lanza attacked. Hockley and Barden are the official spokespersons for SHP. Hockley was a marketing and communications executive for two decades, most recently with a company in the United Kingdom. She returned to the United States in 2011 and took on full-time mom duties to settle her family in to their new home and also help Dylan, who had autism, adjust to his new school. Barden is a musician who stopped touring in order to spend time with his family. He still performs but has come to realize he could honor Daniel’s legacy by dedicating all of his efforts to SHP’s initiatives to stop gun violence.
The origins of the organization came together quickly. Hockley says investors from Silicon Valley provided enough seed money and, exactly one month after the shooting, The Sandy Hook Promise was officially launched as a nonprofit 501c3 in January 2013. Today, a staff of 15 is dedicated to growing the movement into a national support effort that truly educates people on how to look for potential problems. It recently signed on Sandra Lopez and Annie Stephens as organizers in the state of Ohio. The organization has rolled out programs in Ohio and Connecticut with plans for adding an initiative in Miami-Dade County. More than 40 states have taken part in Sandy Hook Promise programs and call-to-action weeks. And even though the organization started and is still based out of Newtown, Hockley says members are very respectful of the community and the impact the tragedy had on everyone. “We don’t represent Newtown and we don’t represent the 26 families,” Hockley says. “We have been expanding and we’re growing with massive momentum behind us.”
Hockley, Barden and the rest of The Sandy Hook Promise team are determined to make good on its mission of educating, advocating and pushing for better gun safety measures. It’s a big task. Those 26 leaves on the Sandy Hook Promise logo tree keep everyone motivated to make sure their lives are honored. The story is not over: many chapters remain.
“We’re still just getting started,” Barden says. “We’re in the process now of having studies done to put a number to reflect what our impact has been. We know we get a lot of feedback from people around the country that are listening and able to learn and become more aware of ways to prevent gun violence.
“It’s not a hopeless situation that cannot be addressed.”