Back-to-school is an important event every year in my home. It represents so much more than just back-to-school. It means my kids are getting older and naturally that I am getting older as well. There will be new teachers, new clothes, new school supplies! Summer wanes, fall creeps in and life takes on a familiar routine. Of course, for me another topic on my mind when school rolls around is safety. Even when our girls were young my husband and I spoke openly and frequently about safety rules and guidelines. We have had these talks so often over the years that our girls are now able to mimic our “discussions” verbatim any chance they can.
Talking about safety at school has been one of the newer additions to our list of safety conversations. After losing my oldest daughter Emilie to a school shooting, how could it not? This year, our safety conversation was initiated by my youngest daughter Samantha, a soon to be 3rd grader, while shopping for new school clothes. “Mom, can I tell you something,” she began. “Did you know there are drills at our school where we have to go outside?!” I smiled and asked her if she could tell me why they would need to go out of the school for a drill. She explained to me not only why they would need to evacuate their school, but how all the other drills at her school work. Samantha loves an audience and I love seeing her repeat all the safety information she has learned both at home and at school.
When we talk to children about school safety, it can often feel intimidating. However, like most things, the more we practice the better we get. In that one conversation while shopping, my daughters covered not only safety drills but also discussions about bullying and what to do if you find yourself surrounded by strangers. Seeing Samantha take our safety talks to another level and become the teacher herself was amazing. Safety is an empowering tool for children. Having safety rules and boundaries gives them a sense of security and control. So, if you haven’t already started those conversations with your kids, start now! You will be amazed with the ideas they will share with you and the questions and conversations that will follow. Hopefully, someday soon they will become your teacher as well!
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools
Now that our first quarter has come and gone, we’re excited to provide you with an update of our travels and ongoing projects from January through March.
Co-founder Alissa Parker kicked off January travels with Safe and Sound board member Bob Martin and Safe and Sound advisor Tau Braun, at the Violence Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Symposium in Corpus Christi, Texas. Shortly after, Safe and Sound Schools, in partnership with the Maryland Center for School Safety, launched the Maryland School Safety Initiative. At this three-day event, co-founder Michele Gay held school safety trainings alongside Safe and Sound advisor Bill Modzeleski, Connecticut law enforcement expert Dan Jewiss, and NASP lead psychologist Ben Fernandez. Meanwhile, in the online social sphere, Safe and Sound schools discussed The Role of Technology In Today’s School Safety Landscape and ended the month with a blog inspired Emilie Parker and her love of art.
With February in full swing, Michele traveled to Illinois to meet with leaders from Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS). Following this trip, Michele headed east to Needham, Massachusetts to present on Developmentally Appropriate Safety Education before the Early Childhood Council. During the second half of February, Michele accepted a leadership award at the NASP President’s Awards and later reunited with Safe and Sound speaker Dr. Melissa Louvar Reeves to present at the 2017 NASP Conference. Shortly after, on February 25, Michele and her husband Bob attended the Champion of Life Gala in Baltimore, Maryland, hosted by the BFG Community Foundation (Safe and Sound Schools is a former recipient of the the Champion of Life Award). February travels concluded with a trip to New Jersey, where Michele presented to law enforcement leaders at the Law Enforcement Against Drugs Conference.
Other key highlights from February include the various #LoveSafety themed blog posts that captured the spirit of love, safety, and kindness. Scarlett Lewis, Safe and Sound speaker and founder of Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, shared a blog about what it means to #ChooseLove. Mills Pond Elementary Library Media Specialist, Louise Prescott, shared a blog on kindness literature. Safe and Sound Schools closed the month with a blog dedicated to sponsors.
March may have been the busiest month this quarter. March travels began with a trip to Howell, Michigan where Michele and Dr. Melissa Reeves held a reunification workshop sponsored by Safe and Sound sponsor Raptor Technologies. On March 10, Michele spent time in her home state of Maryland to present to a room full of Howard County school resource officers and administrators. A couple days later, on March 14, Safe and Sound sponsor Status Solutions hosted a school safety webinar featuring Michele Gay. Later that evening, in Westerville, Ohio, Status Solutions hosted a community event, School Safety Solutions, where Michele presented to an audience full of community members, educators, administrators, law enforcement and safety professionals. The next day, in Colorado, Safe and Sound speaker Frank DeAngelis presented on resiliency and recovery at Adams State University. Soon after, Michele was back in Massachusetts for a “School Threat Assessment and Response System” Rollout presentation hosted by the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC). On March 22, Frank DeAngelis and Kristina Anderson, founder of the Koshka Foundation, traveled to New York to present to a room full of students and faculty at SUNY Oswego. Next, Michele headed to Pennsylvania to present to school safety leaders in the Upper Saint Clair School District. The event was sponsored by Safe and Sound sponsor NaviGate Prepared. Meanwhile, Safe and Sound speaker Dr. Scott Poland also visited Pennsylvania to present at the Safe Schools Speaker Series. March travels concluded with Michele traveling back to Pennsylvania to attend the Safe Schools Symposium in Chester County.
While Safe and Sound leaders traveled to communities throughout the country in March, the communications team announced a new program for high school students, the Safe and Sound Youth Council. This program will allow Safe and Sound Schools to directly connect with high school students around the country, helping students become school safety leaders in their respective communities.
March online efforts continued with a blog celebrating Social Work Month, a blog shared in response to Jewish Community Center bomb threats, and a blog discussing school visitor management.
Safe and Sound Schools looks forward to visiting more communities in the months to come. For day-to-day updates on all things Safe and Sound, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
What inspired you to write and share your story?
The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School affected so many people, and I felt like there was this whole other side to the story no one even knows about. Losing my daughter Emilie completely paralyzed me. I felt such a great loss. In my search to find and understand my daughter’s “new life,” if you will, I was able to also find forgiveness and peace. Sharing that journey with the world was not an easy decision, but I felt like it was the right thing to do.
This book is incredibly personal, filled with private, painful, but also very precious memories of you and your family. Throughout the process of writing this book, what did you learn about yourself?
I learned a lot actually. When I began writing, I had no idea what story I was going to tell through my experiences. I knew that we had had many unique experiences that were important our family and I wanted to record them for my young daughters. But as the story began to unfold on paper and I began to connect the dots, I saw for the first time the whole story. I was stunned. The picture before me was so beautiful! To see how all the pieces connected together was amazing. I felt very humbled by the many blessings our family had been given and how far we had come in the years following Emilie’s death.
In the book, we learn from Emilie that “Everything is connected!” This is one of the themes in your book. Can you talk about the connection between forgiveness and healing? What role has forgiveness played in your journey of healing?
In the beginning, forgiveness wasn’t even something I was thinking about. I wanted to focus on my family and our healing, and the forgiveness part would come later. But, of course that is not what happened. I found that healing and forgiveness went hand and hand and I couldn’t do one without the other.
After Sandy Hook, you reveal that you struggled with your identity, the idea of being defined by tragedy. How important has this book been in helping you own your story, in helping you define you and/or your family’s identity?
Emilie was so much more than the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Her life was full of color and light! I did not want her identity to be defined by someone else’s actions. This story gives people a look at the whole picture of what her life looked like, before and after.
You share many sweet stories of Emilie. It paints a colorful picture of Emilie’s personality. We learn that she was and continues to be a source of inspiration for many. How do you want your daughter to be remembered?
I guess I would want her remembered the way our family remembers her. As a chatty, colorful, messy, caring, emotionally sensitive little girl that always put others before her. She was a loving leader and playmate to her sisters, and an example of Christ-like love to my husband and me.
How did you decide what stories you wanted to share and what stories you wanted to keep private for you and your family?
Oh, there is a whole additional book of stories we didn’t end up using for the book. Some were by choice and some just didn’t fit the main thesis of the book. This is Emilie’s story and we had to use that as a guide to decided what stories needed to be told.
For those who haven’t read the book, what are some of the themes readers can look forward to?
I hope people walk away understanding how connected we all are to the ones we love and that those connections are never truly lost. There is a lot of hope in knowing that. In the darkest of times, it can be hard to see the light. I learned through this experience that the light is all around us, we just have to choose to let it in.
What do you hope people will take away from An Unseen Angel ?
There is so much despair and darkness associated with the shooting at Sandy Hook and I hope this story will show people the other side. The side that can inspire us to look at the world in a different way… the way Emilie saw it. It’s a world full of color and hope and above all else, goodness.
Alissa Parker is the mother of one of the 20 children who died tragically in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. After Emilie’s death, Alissa began TheParkerFive blog as a tool to express the emotions she and her family experienced throughout the grieving process. She is also the cofounder of the Emilie Parker Art Connection, a charity helping local community arts programs for children, and Safe and Sound Schools, a touring national advocacy group that helps people take action to make schools safe.
This last week I was invited to speak at the Violence Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Symposium in Corpus Christi, TX by Coastal Bend. I always love going to Texas, the people there are so warm, friendly and make me feel like family. I was really looking forward to speaking with this audience in particular because of its unique makeup. Usually at a conference, you get a gathering of individuals that all work in the same field. This group, however came from a wide array of professionals. We had first responders, medics, school administrations, business owners (i.e. movie theater owners) and so on. The team at Coastal Bend intentionally invited all these different groups together because they all had one thing in common, gatherings of large groups in their community. They understood the benefit that their community would gain by learning to be prepared for the unthinkable. I spoke alongside Dr. Tau Braun, violence prevention specialist and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools, and Robert Martin, expert in threat assessment and Safe and Sound Schools board member. I’ve presented with them previously. They always share invaluable information. Having such a variety of different groups in the audience allowed for the most amazing and diverse questions! It was an honor to speak in Corpus Christi and learn so much from all who attended. I am so proud of the work they are doing to ensure their community is prepared when tragedy strikes.
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools
From as early as I can remember, my daughter Emilie had crayons in her hands because she LOVED to color! I remember getting frustrated when I would clean our van and find melted crayons all over the floor. Crayons were her constant companion. Every year at Christmas, we would buy a Costco size stack of construction paper to work through for the year to come. As the piles of papers would stack up, I usually found a place to stash them for the time being. She couldn’t stand to throw any of her art away and I didn’t know what to do with it all.
After she died, the crates of drawings I have from Emilie have been such a treasure. As I looked through them, I realized they were a gift for me to see the world through her eyes. I saw her version of the events of her life, the good and the bad. I took all those drawings and compiled them into scrapbooks. When I need a reminder of good in this world, I turn to these drawings and see the bright colors of life in them.
Art for Emilie was a way to express herself. Since her death, my husband Robbie and I wanted to take Emilie’s love of art and pay it forward to those who need it the most. So we began The Emilie Parker Art Connection. Through the Art Connection, we have been able to give resources and opportunities for the art community in honor of Emilie’s memory. One program in particular we have been working with is Art with Heart. An organization who uses art to help children overcome trauma through creative expression. This is something that we have seen personally help our own children in their grief for the loss of their sister.
As we look to continually improve our schools, we have found art to be an incredible resource. When art is used to decorate the halls and rooms of our schools, we are able to increase the connections our children feel to their environment. They gain a sense of increased ownership and pride with their school. This has been proven to decrease vandalism and destruction of property in our schools.
Art is a very powerful tool. It connects us to each other, to our community and schools. Most importantly, it can connect us to our own hearts. When that connection is achieved, lives are changed forever. Personally I have been touched by the healing power of art. It has allowed me to heal. When I see that same healing power touch the children we have come into contact with, it warms my heart. Emilie would be so proud to know that her love is being shared and is helping others.
The morning of December 14th, 2012, my world was shattered, forever changed. An armed attacker broke into my daughter’s school. He took my daughter’s life and the lives of many other children and educators that day.
Like so many others in our little community, I was instantly devastated. The actions of one man had changed my life forever. I had no idea how to move forward or make sense of anything anymore. Yet, two days later, I would speak for the first time to a person who would again change my life forever, Michele Gay, Josephine’s mother.
Our daughters, sweet friends in this life, lovers of all things girly and fancy, had left this world for the next–together. Michele understood my pain and sorrow–and my desire to make meaning of it, to use this pain for a purpose. Together we made a choice. We chose to be inspired by our daughters. We would let them lead the way.
We focused on the world they shared together, the place where they made friends, shared laughter and learned together –school. This place was so special to our children and our families. It was the heart of our community. In honor
of our girls, we decided to help others protect this special place in their own communities. We made it our mission to ensure that every school is the safe, warm, welcoming place that every child deserves.
Together we created Safe and Sound Schools. With the help of an ever-growing, nationwide community of dedicated parents, educators, law enforcement, community members, and safety, emergency & mental health professionals, we have been able to create something to make our daughters proud. Something that over the last four years has helped the communities close to us and all over the country. Together we have created a change that is working, inspiring others to work hard and work together for the safety of schools. We are honored to share the inspiration and spirit of our daughters to help other communities, and honored again and again to see this inspiration bring positive change to so many school communities.
On this fourth anniversary of our tragic loss, we choose again–to remember our daughters and their friends & beloved educators for the positive forces they were and continue to be. We marvel at the inspiring work of so many, work that makes our children and our schools safer.
There is much work to do, but we will never stop or give up. We invite you to join us in remembering our daughters and carrying on their legacy. A legacy of helping others, connecting with people, working hard, and doing better–together.
We thank you for your support of our families and our mission for Safe and Sound Schools.
– Alissa Parker