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.
We asked Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse Lewis and founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to share some reflections with us this month…
February is the month of love. When we think of love, we think about our families, friends, pets, flowers…the things that makes us smile. Love makes us feel good.
What’s more, you can choose love.
The first step is to begin to think about what you think about. Just be aware of the steady stream of thoughts going in and out of your mind. Research shows that in general, we have between 60 and 80,000 thoughts per day. The majority of these thoughts (70%) are angry, not productive and don’t serve us. Up to 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. They are the same thoughts we had yesterday, the day before, the week before, and sometimes even years before! We know that every thought we have impacts us on a cellular level and affects our general well-being. Knowing this, we realize the importance of choosing love!
Although we don’t often think about it, love is a conscious choice. We make this choice, or not, many times during the day. Every time we choose love, we benefit mentally by firing corresponding neurons in our brain, and releasing feel good neurochemicals. We benefit physically as well, by strengthening our immune system, lowering our blood pressure and improving heart health. Emotionally, we experience greater happiness, deeper meaning, and more satisfaction in our lives.
When you have a negative or angry thought, you can actually change it into a loving thought. A lot of times we use negative self talk. “I can’t believe how dumb I am.” “I am unattractive.” “I am unlovable.” Would you say these things to a friend? Of course not. You can change this negative self-talk to, “I will learn from my mistakes.” “My inner beauty is reflected on my outside as well.” and, “I am worthy of love.”
If you find yourself remembering something that made you angry in the past, ask yourself if it is worth negatively impacting your health or even empowering the person who might have made you angry? When we dredge up negatives from the past, our body responds as if it is happening right now. Our hearts beat quicker, our cheeks flush and we feel the same anger coming back. Stop there. Choose love. Take your power back and choose a different thought.
An easy shortcut to choosing love is to think of something you’re grateful for when you’re feeling angry or sad. It’s impossible to have a grateful thought and an angry thought at the same time.
Perhaps the best way to choose love is to do something for someone else. Research shows that doing for others promotes social connection and cultivates relationships. When we do something for someone else it counteracts depression, anger and anxiety. It increases our self-confidence and gives us a sense of purpose. In fact, studies have shown practicing compassion in action increases your lifespan. All the love and energy we give out, comes back to us, and the personal benefits are countless.
This is the perfect month to start choosing a loving thought over an angry thought. That is how the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement began. I found a message my six year old son, Jesse, had written on our kitchen chalkboard shortly before he was murdered in the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He wrote, “Nurturing Healing Love.” I knew if his killer had been able to give–and receive love–that this tragedy would never have taken place.
At Jesse’s funeral, I told the congregation that I believed the whole tragedy started with an angry thought. And an angry thought can be changed. I asked everyone to “think about what they were thinking about,” and choose one loving thought over an angry thought every day.
Some of those in attendance told me that this one simple act has transformed their lives. Choosing to change just one angry thought into a loving thought a day, will help you feel better, will benefit those around you, and through the ripple effect will help make the world a safer, more peaceful and loving place.
Learn more about the life’s work of Scarlett Lewis and the movement that her son Jesse has inspired at jesselewischooselove.org!
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.
Help us spread the word and share our resources with other school communities. Explore our website and free resources to see how our team of experts can help your school prepare for safety.
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools and mother to Emilie Parker
On December 14, 2012, I came home from a long day at high school only to find my mother crying in front of the TV. It was my senior year. I didn’t need any other stressors in my life. I was in the process of sending college applications and writing essays.
I asked my mother what happened. “Que paso?” She told me that 26 people were shot at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. “Twenty of them were just babies. Little kids,” said my mother as she sobbed and pointed at the TV.
I stood there motionless staring at the television. A million thoughts ran through my mind. How could this happen? Why did it happen? Who would take the lives of innocent children at an elementary school? What steps did the school take to protect to the students? Was I even safe in my own school?
I found myself frustrated and angry. I wanted to do something, but what could I do? I was just a senior in high school.
Four years later, I found myself a Boston University College of Communication student as a PRLab account executive for Safe and Sound Schools. Maybe it was destiny, it was my opportunity to finally do something about school safety.
Using my skills and knowledge of public relations, I worked with my PRLab team, Yunong Song and Xiangyi Zhao, to find creative ways to spread the word about school safety. When we heard about Safe and Sound’s #givingtuesday fundraising campaign, Change for School Safety, we knew that we had to get everyone at COM involved.
We first presented to the entire PRLab agency of a 100 students. As we explained why we as an agency need to get involved, we heard the many stories of students recounting where they were the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy. They told us how they felt unsafe returning to school after it happened and revealed their standing concern for their young siblings, nieces and nephews. PRLab accepted to be a part of the #ChangeforSchoolSafety.
Eager to get a head start, every PRLab student dropped their spare change in our Change for School Safety jar –a jar that students have access to in our meeting room, so they (and their clients) can drop off change anytime.
We didn’t stop there. On November 7, we challenged the AdLab agency to be a part of the Change for School Safety. As we left the presentation, the entire AdLab class yelled at us. “You guys are going down!”
It was a good feeling. It was also good to hear that one of the AdLab students, Emily Hartwell, was going to make her own jar. “I am really happy that PRLab challenged us to participate in Change for School Safety. I am also participating at home by making my own school safety jar for my house.”
As BU students, we want to know our campus and every other campuses throughout the nation is safe. Every child in America deserves to learn in a safe environment. Every parent in America deserves to know that their child is safe at school. We need to rethink school safety. We can’t wait for someone else to make that change. You have to be the change you want to see in this world.
Our team is working hard to get Boston University students involved in the Change for School Safety by talking to people, putting up flyers around campus, and getting people to understand why school safety should not be taken for granted. I just hope that by talking to at least five students a day, we can get other students from other colleges and universities to participate. I hope it encourages them tell five others and so on –family, friends, coworkers, professors, anyone. School safety should be on everyone’s mind. It needs to be a priority.
Will you take the challenge and be a part of the change to make schools safer for all students?
Maria, PRLab student at the Boston University College of Communication
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
Sometimes as a father of school aged children I feel like I spend a lot of my time on the sidelines. Whether that is cheering them on at a sporting event, nervously watching them in a recital, or complimenting them about a school project I didn’t know was due last Friday.
I often wonder: Do my children know how much I care about them? And, what else can I do to be more involved in their lives? And how can I keep them safe when I am not present?
Of course these questions are natural for fathers. We, like our counterparts, are required to sacrifice so much for the overall benefit of our children. As a parent –a father–there is nothing more important than the well-being and safety of our family.
After my oldest daughter, Emilie, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, my wife Alissa and other grieving mothers from Sandy Hook met to support one another. As their relationships grew, so did their focus: ensuring the safety of children in school. The women started Safe and Sound Schools. I am so impressed with what they have accomplished.
Like many of the other fathers, I supported them–from the sidelines. That was until I realized that this is a game I can join. This is a game I need to join.
Our children spend about the same amount of time at school each week as we parents do at work. As fathers, our responsibility to ensure our children’s safety and well-being goes beyond the walls of our own home.
As I have met with teachers, administrators, safety and security experts, I have found a group of people who genuinely care about my children’s safety as much as I do. Together we have recognized problems and found solutions that have benefited thousands of children.
If you want to know how to be more involved in your child’s life, in their safety, explore the Safe and Sound School site to access free resources. Get involved, your children will benefit from your love and hard work…whether they know it or not.
Robbie Parker is husband to Alissa and father of Emilie, Madeline and Samantha. Robbie, is a Neonatal Physician’s Assistant, a contributor to Safe and Sound Schools and co-founder of the Emilie Parker Art Connection, founded in honor of Emilie’s love of art.