By Mindi Rudan
Before 2018, when you told people you were from Parkland, Florida, they’d tip their heads asking: “Where’s that?” “South of Boca Raton,” would register some recognition. Now, 5 years after the 2018 shooting that still renders our community raw with noxious disbelief, everyone across the globe seems to know JUST where Parkland is.
Leaving a haunting message resonating with parents everywhere since the unthinkable tragedy: if it happened there; it could happen anywhere.
For the 17 Parkland families shattered that Valentine’s Day, they continue to put one foot after the other just to be able to move on.
Some do that by paying tribute to lost loved ones with charitable work honoring them, organizations that give back to others so the 17 are never forgotten and some, like the recently formed, Parkland 17 Memorial Foundation, (Parkland17.org) a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, are planning an unforgettable and majestic public memorial space to honor the 17 lives taken too soon. Located in a quiet, serene 150-acre preserve that straddles both Coral Springs and Parkland uniting the two affected communities, it will be a place to come and reflect, seek peace, and to remember the 17 community members who lost their lives on February 14, 2018.
Fundraising is underway for the project, which Parkland 17 announced recently. Donations can be made here.
Many of the families torn apart by this horrific tragedy have individually taken on missions to create change and healing in our communities. Some, like Ilan and Lori Alhadeff —-whose 14-year-old Alyssa simply left that morning for a “routine” school day, and never returned to them—they cope by working tirelessly to pass laws to try to ensure no parent knows the heartache they live every day.
The Alhadeffs took their unimaginable grief and anger and channeled it into Make Our Schools Safe (MOSS) advocating state legislatures for “Alyssa’s Law,” requiring teachers to receive panic buttons tied directly to law enforcement, so precious time is not be wasted should potential tragedy strike. And nine months after the shooting, Lori Alhadeff was elected to the Broward County school board and today is its chair.
The law, already enacted in Florida, New York and New Jersey, is currently being considered federally and in several states.
MOSS also distributes kits for treating gunshot victims, and started high school “Make Our Schools Safe” clubs to give students a voice regarding violence-prevention.
The text on the opening picture of The Gina Montalto Memorial Foundation honoring the slain 14 year old, is a quote by Walt Disney “If you can dream it, you can do it.” And to many who knew the exemplary straight A student, Girl Scout, avid reader and person who lit up a room, this quote is so apropos. To honor her spirit, her parents started an organization to help kids reach for their dreams by helping with the costs of post secondary education, providing scholarships to Girl Scouts, nursing students and students in science, technology, math and the arts. There have also been scholarships for Stoneman Douglas grads, even to some who simply demonstrated kindness. The foundation also hosts a ceremony for South Florida Girl Scouts who have received their Silver Award — the highest rank a middle schooler can achieve — and supports projects where Gina volunteered, including groups that help children with special needs.
Nick Dworet was a stand out swimmer who excelled in the water and and out of the water caring about others. His parents, Mitch and Annika Dworet, created The Nicholas Dworet Memorial Fund with a focus on swimming and water safety offering swimming lessons for underprivileged children, and providing college scholarships to swimmers and divers in our community and at Indianapolis University, where Nick Dworet planned to compete.
Fred and Jennifer Guttenberg started Orange Ribbons for Jaime to honor their 14-year-old daughter whose love of dance —and ability—was legendary locally. The organization’s name came from the thousands of orange ribbons her dance troupe made after her murder — orange was her color. These bright orange ribbons were seen everywhere, worn by dance companies nationwide, including by the Broadway cast of “Hamilton.”
This charity provides college scholarships to dancers, special needs children and students who want to go into helping fields, like physical therapy, the field Jaime had chosen for herself.
Geography teacher and cross country coach Scott Beigel died a hero, shot as he herded panicked students into his classroom, where all survived, but he didn’t. What many didn’t know is that Beigel spent his summers also helping kids —by working as a summer camp counselor. He loved the experience as a child, and gave that gift to kids every summer. And just two days after her son’s murder, his mom Linda Beigel Schulman and Beigel’s stepfather, Michael Schulman, started The Scott J. Beigel Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships for underprivileged children touched by gun violence to attend sleep-away camp — and return annually by maintaining good grades and staying out of trouble. In summer 2023, 250 children are set to be touched by the legacy of kindness that Beigel resonated.
Chris Hixon, the athletic director and wrestling coach at MSD, was so dedicated to his students that when coaching vacancies forced him to consider discontinuation of various sports at the school, he stepped UP and coached them himself with zero compensation. He was at the school until 9 pm many nights. A man by all accounts who was ALL about the kids. So no one was surprised to hear accounts of Hixon speeding in a golf cart toward the sound of gunfire on that fateful night when a former student walked into the school at dismissal time with an AR-15 rifle and began shooting people in the freshman building. Hixon’s immediate reaction was to protect the students and stop the attack. A hero, the Navy veteran then 49, was one of the 17 victims gunned down by the 19-year-old shooter.
To honor him, his family started The Chris Hixon Foundation, which awards five scholarships annually to deserving Broward County athletes.
Luke Hoyer, just 15 on that tragic day, had such a love of sports, and his mom, Gena, whose lifelong career has been working with foster children. To honor her son, Gena and husband, Tom, combined the two passions, forming The Luke Hoyer Athletic Fund, to honor the memory of their child. The fund covers the cost for foster children to participate in travel league sports, martial arts and even dance lessons— activities that normally would elude a foster child. Those activities can cost upwards of $1,000 per child, activities usually too expensive for foster parents to cover. Honoring his memory, each time a child who couldn’t, suddenly can, they know it’s because of Luke.
Cara Loughran was Irish and fancied all things Irish. The 14-year-old, just days short of her 15th birthday when she was gunned down, was a dedicated student who loved school and was on the A Honor Roll. She loved the beach, ice skating, shopping and dancing at the Drake School of Irish Dance. Already an accomplished Irish dancer Cara was set to appear in a St. Patrick’s Day festival the month after her death. Her family established Cara Dances On Memorial Scholarship Foundation providing college scholarships for students at the dance studio where she took lessons.
Manuel and Patricia Oliver’s path is slightly different. Their goal with their foundation, Change the Ref, established to honor the death of their 17-year-old son, Joaquin, (“Guac”) who was known for his writing, ability to make friends, and love of basketball. In fact, the foundation’s name comes from what Joaquin was heard to say after bad Ref calls cost his basketball team a game — “that nothing would change without new refs”. CTR was born to challenge the political influence of the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers. They say the firearms industry has bought and intimidated politicians and works to reduce the influence of the NRA and gun manufacturers through strategic interventions and use urban art and non-violent creative confrontation to advocate for the eradication of the gun violence epidemic.
Also in the prevention arena, is Andrew Pollack who staunchly believes his 18-year-old daughter Meadow and the five others who died on the third floor of the attacked classroom building would have lived if the school’s sheriff’s deputy had charged inside to confront the shooter on the first floor instead of staying outside.
His foundation Meadow’s Movement, has begun giving backpacks to school police and security officers that convert almost instantly into bullet-resistant vests, unfolding in one motion over the head. That also pulls onto the officers’ chest a rifle with a stock that unfolds — so if the unthinkable happens again, the officers won’t have to confront a well-armed shooter with just a handgun, it gives those sworn to protect the children a level playing field to do so.
The foundation also builds playgrounds, including one honoring Meadow costing $1 million built in Coral Springs.
After Kelly and Ryan Petty’s 14-year-old daughter Alaina was murdered, the still grieving father was appointed to the state commission investigating the shooting.
What he learned about the shooter PRIOR to the tragedy put the couple on a course to hopefully identify commonalities that could perhaps prevent future atrocities. Petty became convinced the answer isn’t tighter gun laws, which he says don’t work, but more effective intervention and communication by school administrators, mental health providers and law enforcement. Many people reported the Parkland shooter’s threats way prior to the massacre, but no authorities acted upon or even shared any of this information. Information that MAY have prevented it,
In response, Petty and his wife, Kelly, started The Walk Up Foundation which works with government, law enforcement and school officials to improve communication so potential shooters are identified. He points to Secret Service findings that almost all school shooters showed “disturbing behaviors” well before acting.
Information used NOT to arrest more students but to get them help before other families are left to grieve. Their foundation feels “that ‘walking up’ can be the change and provide the hope a troubled person needs. “Walking up doesn’t require any special skills. Just listen, observe, and identify a person in need.”
To cope with his son’s death, Max Schachter, made promoting school safety his full-time mission. He ended his insurance career, joined the state commission on the investigation into the shooting, and has traveled the country talking to and consulting with school safety and law enforcement officials to make some sense of the tragedy that took his son. Founding Safe Schools for Alex to honor his child and try to prevent other families from living his nightmare. The foundation’s website offers a “dashboard” where parents in several states can examine safety data for their child’s school.
It lets them see if there is a problem — or if their school’s administrators are hiding problems.
The foundation also provides online one-on-one lessons for underprivileged middle school band members. Alex, who loved music, played trombone in the Stoneman Douglas band, which had won the state halftime show competition shortly before his murder.
April and Phil Schentrup knew even at an early age that their daughter Carmen, had a simple but bold dream: find the cure for ALS. Growing up, Carmen lost two people close to her from ALS, and she was determined to become a leading medical researcher and discover a cure for this devastating disease. Carmen was never afraid of a tough problem, and she knew the hardest part of solving a problem was simply getting started. That’s why Carmen joined the HOSA (Health Occupation Students of America) club at her school. Like most things Carmen did, she gave her budding passion for the medical sciences her all.
After Carmen’s murder, the Schentrups decided as a family to donate Carmen’s entire life savings, to create the Carmen Schentrup ALS Research Fund. Any donations made to the fund go directly to the most promising ALS research through The ALS Association. Their hope in honoring their daughter is that, with enough help, Carmen’s dream of defeating ALS will one day come true.
Peter Wang, an ROTC member, dreamed of attending the United States Military Academy and becoming a pilot. Last seen holding a door for his classmates in his JROTC uniform. Imagine, holding a door open, letting others run for their lives before running for his own life? Almost is impossible to imagine during a shooting. But not impossible for those who knew this kind, selfless young man. This small gesture cost Peter his life when he was shot multiple times. He was only 15 but had already put the lives of others before his.
He was awarded the highest United States Department of the Army medal – ROTC Medal for Heroism. He was also posthumously accepted at West Point. 117,604 people signed a petition to award Peter the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To honor Peter’s memory his family set up The Peter Wang Foundation, a scholarship program to help disadvantaged students from the local Chinese-American community and also make charitable donations to organizations Peter supported.
With time and help our communities WILL heal. Your support where your heart leads you is appreciated.
But as worthy as these amazing endeavors are, as beautifully and selflessly as they do honor the 17 souls taken that day, the families —and the entire community affected would do anything if they only could turn back time and have PREVENTED the tragedy….If only…
Mindi Rudan is a writer, former publisher of PARKLAND / CORAL SPRINGS Life, Coconut Creek Life and BOCA Delray Life magazines, a pet mom, event planner and now crazy wreath maker. You can follow her on FB https://www.facebook.com/
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