This can be one of the true stressors of childhood. A few days before your birthday and all eyes are on you. Everyone is tuned in to your needs and your wishes. It’s something that only comes once a year and the pressure of getting it all right starts to press down on your delicate shoulders. Determined you stand upright defying that invisible force as you declare what meal will be eaten regardless of anyone else’s preferences. An itinerary of who will participate and what activities will happen forms first in your mind then starts to take shape with each discussion between you and your mom. Months of subtly dropping hints in stores and eying inventory from catalogs start to penetrate the minds of your parents and you dare to hope…
My daughter, Emilie, loved birthdays. Every birthday, not just hers. It was not important if it was Madeline’s, Samantha’s, Mom and Dad’s or even Jesus’s birthday. Emilie realized and understood that birthday’s were a special time to celebrate each other—together. Her joy in honoring the lives of those closest to her was infectious. The effort she put into planning a fun and exciting birthday for her family members far surpassed the time and energy she put into her own. The thrill she genuinely expressed for others had the power to even make a 30th birthday party as enjoyable as a 6 year olds.
May 12th will mark the 5th year that Emilie will not be able to help us plan a party. Another year of not fretting what to request for dinner, who to invite or what presents to hope for. Five years later it is a punishing task to figure out how to best celebrate her life and what she means for our family. As her parents we are supposed to know her best and to be perfectly honest—we don’t anymore. We can’t anticipate what food she would like, what friends she would have and what presents she would want. Her twelve-year-old self would be a Ship of Theseus from the six-year-old we did know. Five years later she would still be Emilie, but almost every aspect of her from her likes, dislikes, friends, passions and even the cells in her body would be slowly replaced one by one with new ones.
So how do we celebrate the birth of someone whose life changed ours so powerfully? Someone that in six years of living continues to impact and inspire us five years later.
I do have an idea, if I may be so bold as to make a birthday wish on Emilie’s behalf? I do know that she always did and continues to love her family and supports what is important to them. Over the last five years our family has advocated for children’s safety and well being by starting two non-profit organizations.
On the day Emilie died there was a birthday party invitation on our fridge. It was for Josephine “Joey” Gay. Those two friends died together in the same classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now Emilie’s mom, Alissa and Joey’s mom, Michele have created Safe and Sound Schools. The only non-profit initiative in the after math of Sandy Hook to focus solely on School Safety.
We also created the Emilie Parker Art Connection which focuses mainly on embodying Emilie’s love of art to connect children suffering from trauma, abuse and neglect to art therapy as a way of healing.
If you would like to join us in celebrating Emilie’s 12th birthday please do so because she loved a party!
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
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.
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
On the morning of December 14, 2012, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. It was an automated phone call from the Newtown School District informing me that there had been a shooting at one of the schools. Shocked, I listened to the message waiting for information. There is a shooting? How did this happen? What do I do? What is happening with my daughter Emilie? What does her school even do in an event like this? But the message didn’t address any of these questions.
After the short recording ended, I stood there confused. I wondered what to do next. I was standing in a children’s store, Christmas shopping with my youngest daughter. I got into my car and started driving towards the school. I called my husband to see what he could find out. He said the shooting had been at the elementary school and he heard on the news that parents were not supposed to go to the school yet to pick up their kids. Desperate to do something, I went to the preschool to pick up my daughter Madeline. There I was told by other parents that it was okay to go and get our children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I quickly loaded my daughters into the car and headed to the elementary school. The road was so backed up with cars and emergency vehicles. It felt like forever before I reached the school.
The driveway to Sandy Hook Elementary School was long and curved, the school not visible from the main road. The volunteer firehouse was situated at the corner of the main road and the school driveway. Approaching this corner, I took in the chaos. Children, educators, parents and first responders were all running around every which way. I imagined how scared Emilie must be around all that chaos and I couldn’t wait to find her. Cars were piled up everywhere and some cars were even parked on neighboring people’s lawns. As I ran down the road with my youngest daughters towards the school, I was told three different directions to find Emilie. By the time I reached the firehouse, I was confused, emotional and frustrated. What is going on? What am I supposed to do? Unable to find Emilie or her teacher, I was directed to the back of the firehouse. I was told to wait there.
I had imagined this room to be filled with joy as parents and children found each other and embraced with big hugs. Instead, the room filled up with parents like me. We waited and waited. Police officers and representatives from the school district were all there, but they looked just as confused as we did. I wanted to know what had happened. I wanted to know where Emilie was. But every time I asked for information, I was told nothing. What I didn’t know was that our beloved principal was gone. Without her, no one knew what to do. There was no orderly release of children to parents. Neighbors and family members were taking home other children, adding to the confusion and panic of parents arriving, unable to locate their child.
Only a week before the shooting at Sandy Hook, there had been an evacuation drill. It included an announcement, classroom lines walking calmly from the school and lining up at the firehouse, side by side. Controlled. What Sandy Hook had practiced wasn’t anything like the scene I saw that day. So many things never imagined happened that day. Part of our mission at Safe and Sound Schools is to help share our experience to help other schools around the country learn to be prepared. Schools that we have worked with across the country are now making change with us. They are preparing themselves for the unimaginable. What if their principal is unavailable? Who is the backup? Do teachers and students know where to go? Do the parents know the plan? By educating schools to ask these and many other questions, we are making an impact upon the preparedness and confidence of school communities nationwide.
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Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools and mother to Emilie Parker