Sitting on a stage before me were three students, who were robbed of their safety that day in Florida. They began by giving their personal accounts of that day. The stories were similar; the confusion of shots fired, burning fear, texts to loved ones in the case they did not make it out. And if you were to talk to other students from Douglas High you probably would have gotten comparable accounts. But what made them stand apart was their reaction amidst the aftermath. Parkland was a town of middle-class entrepreneurs, and in the emotional mess following trauma they embodied this spirit and rose above tragedy in the hopes of igniting change. Propelled by the feeling that no other kid should have to experience a school shooting, they began their social movements.
Each took their own approach. Madison Leal started “Branches of Bravery”, a nonprofit aimed at raising money to plant trees for the 17 victims of the shooting and then in other communities facing hard times. Sam Zeif, in memory of his best friend Joaquin, created “Change the Ref” with Joaquin’s parents. This organization took a more political and educational route. The purpose was to inform and encourage youths to fight for their values through political participation. And Kai Koerber became the face of Societal Reform Corporation, a nonprofit advocating for comprehensive and wholistic mental health curricula in public schools. Each had their merits and the potential to make an impact just as extensive as the ripples of pain emulating from a singular event.
It still surprises me to think that in a matter of months these students were rocketed from writing essays and choosing prom dresses to the cover of People Magazine. They were young. They were inspiring. They were reminding me of what it meant to truly be a “Courageous Citizen”. They demonstrated that painful events will define us, but the content of that definition is a choice we make on our own.