Happy 12th birthday, my little love. I celebrate you today—and every day–here on Earth, knowing that you are alive in heaven.
I imagine you playing with so many of your friends and favorite teachers, eating cupcakes and pizza, and living a life more full than I can imagine.
I miss your kisses and snuggles, your hysterical belly laughter, and how you pestered your big sisters–and your daddy–without mercy.
I miss you. So much.
Life is not easy without you here…but as I promised you once, I won’t give up.
I will love openly, share generously, speak boldly, and walk bravely—toward a better, safer, and more compassionate world.
Do not worry. I am not alone. Many good people walk with me.
I keep all of your gifts close to my heart. I use them to heal our family and in service to others. Your gifts continue to prosper, making schools safer, providing for families with autism, and reminding others of God’s presence in their lives.
You continue to make your mark on this world—and the next. I am sure.
I still hear your sweet voice and feel your warm presence. I know that you are with me in all that I do.
My love for you is like yours for me. Always.
This post, written by Michele Gay and her family, originally appeared in The Newtown Bee on November 17, 2017.
December 14, 2017, will mark five years without loved ones for families of children and educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Newtown Bee will share remembrances of victims of 12/14 throughout the fall, written by family members or with the assistance of staff at The Newtown Bee. Not all families care to participate, and we respect that. This week, the family of Josephine Gay shares these words.
December 2017 brings the fifth anniversary of losing our daughter and sister Josephine Grace at Sandy Hook School. The youngest of three daughters and the center of our family’s life, she was born on December 11, 2005, in Columbia, Md.
Just a few months after Josephine’s birth, our family would move from the bustling Baltimore-Washington suburbs to the small Northeastern town of Newtown. After months of house hunting, phone calls, and research, we settled on the quiet little village of Sandy Hook.
Josephine lived most of her life of 7 years and 3 days as a Newtown resident, among some of the finest friends, neighbors, and community members that we could have hoped for. Those closest to our family knew her best as “Joey.”
She was affectionate and friendly, determined and hardworking, mischievous and fun-loving. She was the “girly-est” of our girls. Joey adored her older sisters and worked hard to keep up with and direct them whenever and however possible.
As she grew, we watched her closely, noting great differences between her development and that of her older sisters. Close to her second birthday, she was diagnosed with autism, and later with global apraxia and apraxia of speech. She worked very hard to learn to move her body, communicate, and meet the milestones that had come so easily to her older sisters.
Her indomitable spirit, determination, and desire to connect with others would ensure that her family and friends understood her and looked out for her, going to great lengths to share in and celebrate her accomplishments. Her classmates eagerly learned sign language and encouraged and included her whenever they could. She was blessed with true friendships and loved by many of her peers, neighbors, and teachers.
Yet the gap between her growth and that of her peers would increase as they progressed through preschool and kindergarten. The resources of our small town school system could not fully support her learning and development, so she would spend hours after school and on weekends at occupational, physical, speech, and behavioral therapy, her sisters tagging along and participating wherever they could.
As she approached first grade, our family had to make a difficult decision: continue this challenging routine or search for a community with the resources to more fully support Josephine. We labored over the decision, knowing that life in Newtown had provided a safe, supportive, and compassionate community for Joey and our family. We wondered if we would find another place on earth like this.
We found our new home in nearby Sudbury, Mass., and we began to prepare for our move in January 2013. We looked forward to this new chapter and the new opportunities that awaited our family, and took comfort in the fact that we would never be far from our Newtown friends and neighbors.
Despite our hopes and dreams, plans and preparations, Josephine would never move with us. She was killed in her classroom along with many of her beloved friends and teachers at Sandy Hook School on the morning of December 14, 2012. The loss of Josephine is still unimaginable and as difficult to understand as it is to bear.
Yet our love for her never ends. Our faith that she lives in heaven sustains us. Our friends and family are ever mindful and prayerful for us. Somehow we are moving forward with her.
Carrying on with our move only one month after her death was an overwhelming undertaking. It was difficult to imagine how we would survive without the love and support we felt in our Newtown community. Nevertheless, we made the move with the support of many Newtown friends and neighbors and were received with open arms in Sudbury.
Only a few hours away from our Newtown friends and neighbors and the families of loss that we clung to, we made frequent trips “home” for support, meetings, and difficult decisions. We chose when to come and go and which events we had the energy to attend and support.
Living outside of Newtown, our family was free from many of the difficult pressures and challenges now facing the community. We resolved to build and protect our daughter’s legacy ourselves and in our own time.
We chose to create a legacy for Joey that focused on her extraordinary life, not her tragic death. As her family, we are honored to be the custodians of her voice and her legacy. Although it has been both eye-opening and heartbreaking to witness the efforts of others to use her memory and our tragic loss for their own politics, purposes, and pursuits; many friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers have rallied around and alongside us with unconditional and unwavering support, helping us build and protect a legacy fit for Josephine.
Joey loved school, her friends, and teachers. She lived a wonderful life both gifted and challenged by autism. She thrived in our family of faith. These are the pillars of her legacy, the legacy that we have built with the support of so many generous hearts and hands both in Newtown and nationwide.
We started building Joey’s legacy first with the Doug Flutie, Jr Foundation for Autism. As donations from friends, family, and strangers poured in following her death, we opened Joey’s Fund for families with autism. Joey’s Fund has granted more than $55,000 each year since the tragedy to provide direct support to families with autism. We see the generous spirit and smile of our daughter alive and well in the faces of these exceptional children.
In the spring of 2013, we founded Safe and Sound Schools with the Parker family [whose daughter, Emilie, also was killed during the tragedy] to help school communities build and ensure the safest possible learning environment for children and teachers. Traveling the country advocating, speaking, and teaching with the guidance of national school safety experts, we’ve watched this grassroots effort blossom and grow, helping thousands of school communities striving for safety.
December 14th is always a difficult day for us. This year, like every year since 2012, we will attend early Mass, spend the day together sharing memories, and thanking God for His steady presence in our lives.
We will celebrate Joey’s 12th birthday this year on December 11th, wearing purple in her honor, tying purple balloons on the mailbox (a tradition started by our Newtown friends and neighbors), and accepting donations in her memory for Joey’s Fund for families with autism. To learn more or support Joey’s Fund please visit: http://bit.ly/2AlbSUF.
We continue our work with Safe and Sound Schools, sharing our message of hope, education, and empowerment with school communities across the country. To learn more about Safe and Sound Schools or to support or join our national effort, please visit safeandsoundschools.org.
We are grateful for the many thoughts, prayers, and acts of humble service that have lifted us up and helped us carry on in memory of our precious daughter and sister, Joey. We eagerly wait for the day that we can see and hold her, not only in our hearts and minds, in our arms once again.
With love and gratitude,
Bob, Michele, Sophie and Marie Gay 💜
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.
Last week took me out on the road again but in the most familiar territory, my home state of Maryland.
Safe and Sound Schools joined the Maryland Center for School Safety on a cross-the- state tour of school safety training for Maryland educators, leaders, law enforcement, fire, and mental health professionals.
Our trip and our training was a gift—literally. Last February Safe and Sound Schools was awarded a grant from Maryland based non-profit, BFG Community Foundation to focus our efforts and our attention on the Maryland schools.
And that’s just what we did. Together with the Maryland Center, we launched our first Maryland School Safety Initiative. We’ve been working jointly for a year now, bringing national and local leadership and Safe and Sound resources to Maryland schools.
This work culminated in a teaching and training tour, Beyond Tragedy: Preparing the Maryland Schools for a Safer Tomorrow. We brought together a team of national and local educators and trainers, travelling from Cambridge to Fredrick, to Annapolis, connecting us with many of Maryland’s finest and most dedicated leaders and school safety professionals.
Bill Modzeleski, Safe and Sound Advisor and Former Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, joined us to moderate the event. Bill’s national perspective and years of experience in the field set the tone for three successful days.
Dan Jewiss, CT law enforcement expert, offered his professional insights on improved emergency response and caring for victims, co-workers, and self in the aftermath of tragedy.
I followed with my personal perspective as a former teacher and Sandy Hook parent, touching on lessons learned in prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. But I can’t help but feel that it’s the indomitable spirit of my daughter Joey that was most meaningful to bring to each group.
Ben Fernandez, lead school psychologist, crisis team leader, and trainer for the National Association of School Psychologists shared professional insights and experiences, as well as familiarity with many of the local school safety and mental health challenges our Maryland schools face.
Ed Clarke and Dino Pignataro of the Maryland Center for School Safety joined us in discussion throughout the day and provided three fantastic training sites for the event. Their leadership and relationships with school safety practitioners and leaders across Maryland made this joint venture possible.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about an event like this for all of us was the opportunity to engage with the local experts and communities we are so honored to serve. Safe and Sound brings national and local experts and community members together. It’s our mission and our passion. Still, to watch it happen in communities across the country and in Maryland is a great honor and a true inspiration.
Thank you to the BFG Community Foundation, The Maryland Center for School Safety, and the many professionals that joined us across Maryland.
It’s amazing what we can do when we come together.
Michele Gay, Co-founder & Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools
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
Recently, I received an email from a parent asking me, “What can I do to help Safe and Sound Schools? What can change to improve school safety?” It’s the same question that I receive from everyone I meet online and on the road – from parents to students to teachers to first responders.
As I think about this question, it brings me back to when Alissa and I first started Safe and Sound Schools. We never imagined that 20 beautiful and innocent young students and six dedicated school staff and teachers would lose their lives to a horrible tragedy on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. We never imagined that our own children, Josephine and Emilie, would be among the names of the children killed that day. We never imagined how much our lives would change, including those of our families and the world around us.
We just knew that after what happened, we had to do something. We had to make sure that what happened at Sandy Hook didn’t happen anywhere else.
In creating Safe and Sound Schools, Alissa and I believed that we needed to educate communities and empower them to make school safety a priority. But through our travels, we found out that school safety issues varied from state to state, city to city. Communities want resources. Students want to get involved in the school safety conversation. Parents want to know what steps and policies are in place to protect their children at school. First responders want to be prepared for any type of crisis that happens at a school. And we want everyone to be safe and sound. But how do we get there?
To provide more resources, get students involved, and continue the school safety conversation online and on the ground, we need your help. We cannot do this work alone. We need everyone to be a part of the Change for School Safety. By collecting loose change and saving it as donation to give on #GivingTuesday (November 29), you can make a difference in school safety.
- Continue to travel to communities and empower them to put school safety first;
- Develop and share student-centered programs that will encourage students to speak out and do something about school safety issues affecting them; and
- Connect with school administrators, mental health and emergency professionals, and parents with the resources they need to keep their schools and students safe and sound.
There is so much work to be done. But in the words of Richard Bach, we know that “a tiny change today can bring a dramatically different tomorrow.”
Will you be part of the change for school safety?
To find out more about being a part of Change for School Safety, click here.
Michele Gay, Co-founder & Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools