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Left to right; Grace Fischer, Emma Ehrens, Matt Holden, Lilly Wasilnak and Ella Seaver members of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance at Newtown Town Hall on Friday, June 7, 2024. They will be graduating from Newtown High School. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Left to right; Grace Fischer, Emma Ehrens, Matt Holden, Lilly Wasilnak and Ella Seaver members of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance at Newtown Town Hall on Friday, June 7, 2024. They will be graduating from Newtown High School. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
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NEWTOWN, Conn. — The students who survived the in 2012 live with their trauma — and without their friends — every day.

Sitting around a table at the Edmund Town Hall in Newtown on their last Friday as high school students, five seniors who survived the shooting were making plans to leave Sandy Hook soon, heading off to college campuses and careers. Many of their future plans are that has helped them heal.

The weight of their loss is heavy this week as they prepare to accept their diplomas without 20 of their friends. And the fear that they carry with them is palpable with every bang of a door closing and every shuffle of a footstep in the hall behind them.

Eleven-and-a-half years after they ran for their lives through the neighborhood near their school and huddled beside backpacks in their cubbies, the fear still sneaks up on them in the form of a quickened heart rate and a held breath.

Their classroom daydreams drift to escape routes and hiding places. Where is the closest window? Would they fit under that desk? They think about it when their back is to a door. When they’re in a crowd at a concert. Would they fight? Run? Help their friends?

Those were decisions they never should have had to make, but did, when a gunman stormed their school and massacred their classmates and teachers on Dec. 14, 2012.

As they prepare to graduate from Newtown High School on Wednesday, they’re vowing to continue to fight for gun violence prevention until no other child has to make those same decisions.

Newtown Action Alliance's Grace Fischer, 18, talks about Sandy Hook on Friday, June 7, 2024, as she gets ready to graduate from Newtown High School. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
“Graduation is a really big milestone in our lives. And I think walking across that stage will be a really bittersweet moment.” says Junior Newtown Action Alliance’s Grace Fischer, 18. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

‘Bittersweet’ memories

Lilly Wasilnak, Ella Seaver, Emma Ehrens, Matt Holden and Grace Fischer are members of the , a grassroots gun violence prevention organization started in Newtown in the wake of the shooting.

The five teens drifted into town hall in staggered waves on Friday after returning from Washington D.C. On Thursday, a group of six survivors and their parents walked into the White House and sat down with Vice President Kamala Harris, telling her what they saw, heard and felt as their classmates were killed around them in the first grade.

They hope their stories will reach the Oval Office and, in turn, help influence the national policy changes they’ve been hoping for since they were 6 and 7 years old.

When contemplating how they felt meeting Harris and how they have felt throughout their senior year as they posed for prom pictures, chose their dorm rooms and picked up their caps and gowns, the word that came to mind for this group of five survivors was the same: “Bittersweet.”

“Graduation is a really big milestone in our lives,” said Fischer. “And I think walking across that stage will be a really bittersweet moment.”

“Everything is bittersweet,” said Seaver. “You smile and cry on the same things.”

In between all the things that trigger flashbacks to the worst moments of their lives, they also get glimmers of the lives their friends did get to live.

They remember pretending to be parents in the kindergarten school kitchen and tracing out drawings of barn animals on the classroom rug.

Newtown Action Alliance's Emma Ehrens, 17, talks about Sandy Hook on Friday, June 7, 2024, as she gets ready to graduate from Newtown High School. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Emma Ehrens, 17, says she grasps on to what she can remember back in 2012, like how she envied her friend’s perfect brunette curls or how her teacher taught her to tie her shoes. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

“Do you remember chasing the boys around the playground?” Fischer asked, laughing as the group often does when they talk about fond memories of their friends.

They talk about birthday parties and playdates, painting cardboard houses and pushing their friends in plastic toy cars. They share memories of playground swings and a knocked out baby tooth, making Papier-mâché fans and playing in a friends’ pool.

They remember making a childhood vow to “marry that girl someday” and not knowing if it would have come true. And wishing a happy birthday to a little girl whose birthday party, planned for the next day, would never happen.

For Fischer, it’s hard to think about childhood and think of anything but the shooting. She wishes she could just focus on moments when she made friends, ate ice cream cones.

Others wish they had memories of games they played to share with their own kids someday. But the tragedy, they said, has taken too great a toll on their lives.

As the seniors prepare to leave Sandy Hook, they try to keep the happy memories of their classmates close. Even as they fade with time and trauma.

Newtown Action Alliance's Matt Holden, 17, talks about Sandy Hook on Friday, June 7, 2024, as he gets ready to graduate from Newtown High School. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Sandy Hook survivors such as Matt Holden, 17, try to keep the memories of their fallen classmates close. “Sometimes (people) kind of forget that they were people too, they weren’t just victims. They were people we knew, we loved.” (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

Ehrens, now 17, said one of the young girls who was killed was one of her best friends in their first years of school.

“I can’t remember what she sounds like and it kills me,” she said. She grasps on to what she can remember, how her teacher taught her to tie her shoes and blow her bubble gum and how she envied her friend’s perfect brunette curls.

“It was so curly, it was so cute. I don’t want to forget that, but there’s no part of her left here besides her memory,” she said.

So they keep mementos in their bedrooms, many of which may soon be packed up and brought to dorm rooms across the country: A Lightning McQueen toy, a Hello Kitty necklace, a teddy bear, a framed photo of two kindergartners coloring.

“You’re trying to remember the people and these memories,” said Seaver. “You’re trying everything to hold onto this thread of them that sometimes feels like it’s slipping away.”

But the survivors will not let the kids and teachers they left behind in their school be forgotten.

“To the rest of the world it seems like a list of names, but to us they were so much more than that,” said Wasilnak. “They were these bright, bubbly fun people who shaped our childhoods. And even though we didn’t get to know them for a long time they have had such an influence on all of us.”

“Sometimes (people) kind of forget that they were people too, they weren’t just victims,” added Holden. “They were people we knew, we loved. So remember them for who they were, not just who they are now that they’re not with us.”

“There is a community that has been built,” said Seaver. “There’s always a shoulder that you can go cry on, laugh with, smile and just break down with if you need to, because this isn’t something that goes away within the first year of this happening. We’re here, 11, 12 years later, still talking about it.”

Newtown Action Alliance's Lilly Wasilnak, 17, talks about Sandy Hook on Friday, June 7, 2024, as she gets ready to graduate from Newtown High School. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
“To the rest of the world it seems like a list of names, but to us they were so much more than that,” says Lilly Wasilnak, as she gets ready to graduate from Newtown High School without 20 of their classmates. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

Journey to advocacy

Just as they sat with Harris and shared their stories, they went around the same circle when they first joined the Jr. Newtown Action Alliance, recounting what they could and could not remember.

“When all of us kind of started this journey we all sat down and shared our stories with each other,” said Seaver. “And it’s kind of like a puzzle piece. Because so many of us remember different things, things that we’ve purposely tried to erase from our memory to save ourselves. (It) hurts to remember, but it also really reminds you that you’re not alone, unfortunately so.”

Talking about their memories and trauma ahead of graduation, they said, helped them understand how their entire lives have been shaped by what happened in 2012.

“We all got put in this club that we don’t want to be in, but we’re kind of forced to be in,” said Wasilnak.

They meet with other survivors across the country to inspire hope, to learn how they are coping. They call their lawmakers and lobby against those who oppose assault weapon bans.

Newtown Action Alliance's Ella Seaver, 18, talks about Sandy Hook on Friday, June 7, 2024, as she gets ready to graduate from Newtown High School. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
“There is a community that has been built,” said Ella Seaver, 18. “There’s always a shoulder that you can go cry on, laugh with, smile and just break down with if you need to, because this isn’t something that goes away.” (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

These students, and many like them, have marched on Washington D.C., met face-to-face with members of Congress, lobbied on Capital Hill and now gone into the White House, urging the adults who are meant to protect them to please do so.

They want to get ghost guns off the streets, to prevent DIY guns from being manufactured. They want safe storage laws and background checks and safer schools.

The long lasting ripple effect of mass shootings is something the Sandy Hook survivors hope they can help other Americans understand across the map, across the political aisle and in positions of power.

Fischer said they tell their stories to inspire change but also “to remember that our story wasn’t just the time that we spent in that school. It is the 11 years after when our stories continued, the therapy and the funerals were had to go through. It didn’t end that day.”

“It doesn’t just affect the students or teachers who were in the building, it’s the parents who had to go pick up their kids from the fire station and see all the chaos and see the parents of the children that were lost,” added Seaver. “It’s the siblings that were old enough to understand what happened. It’s the first responders who had to be there and be strong enough to deal with it but ultimately are also falling apart on the inside.”

All of those people are the reasons they continue to work toward change.

“We have a purpose. We don’t want more kids to have to go through what we did or more kids to have to lose their lives to guns,” said Wasilnak.

They want to prevent other towns from facing the same fate and they don’t want survivors who aren’t ready to speak out to endure any further pain.

“As powerful as it is to share your voice, it’s painful. Simply put,” said Seaver.

“We have to be the voices for those who aren’t ready yet,” said Wasilnak.

So they tell their stories again and again and again because if they don’t, who will?

Most of the survivors have been through years of therapy and are still not at the finish line. They may be done with their classwork in Newtown schools, but they’ll never be done working through what they experienced there.

“We’ve all overcome so much to get here and there’s still so much to overcome,” said Seaver. “Going into the real world and going into college and even beyond that. It seems like it’s one specific day that affected us, but it’s so much more than that.”

They want people to know that they wish they weren’t doing this work, but they’re doing it to save lives.

“These people were the kids that we played at the playground with every single day. Those happy memories of them, I think, will always be in our minds,” said Fischer. “We don’t want to think of them as just victims, they were our friends.”

As they accept their diplomas Wednesday, the survivors hope that they receive “more than thoughts and prayers” — that peers, future professors, college roommates and all the new people they meet will honor their first-grade classmates with action, advocacy and their votes.

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