NEWTOWN, CT – They were children themselves when they lost siblings, friends, and schoolmates in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Too young to comprehend the massacre, they spent years in shock and denial.
Seven years later, some young people in Newtown, still struggling with the trauma, are emerging as new voices for school safety and gun violence prevention. The activism, they say, has been a way to turn something horrific into something positive.
Twenty first-grade students and six educators were killed inside the school on Dec. 14, 2012, by a gunman in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
Some stories from victims' siblings and students were in the school at the time of the shooting:
Natalie Barden was 10 when her brother, Daniel, 7, was killed. She attended a different school that went into lockdown as word of the shooting spread. She remembers being annoyed that morning as Daniel hugged her while they got ready for school.
Her favorite memories are of sleeping on Daniel's bed with Daniel and their older brother, James, because it was the biggest, and watching television, playing board games and wrestling.
Her father, Mark Barden, became an activist with the Sandy Hook Promise group he helped create after the shooting. Natalie disliked the media attention and interviews in their home because they brought back the pain of losing Daniel.
“When you're that young, it's really hard to wrap your mind around it," said Natalie, now a 17-year-old senior at Newtown High School. “Your sibling is such a big part of your life, and to know your brother for only seven years is gone — I still can't wrap my mind around it. When I got to high school, it really hit me."
As she entered school, the shock was wearing off. Then 17 people were killed in the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She was inspired by the Parkland teens who demanded action on gun control.
“That just kind of pushed me to become more involved with the whole youth movement,” Natalie said in an interview.
Her sophomore year, Natalie joined the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, the youth arm of the Newtown Action Alliance, a local group dedicated to promoting gun control measures.
She has called the offices of federal lawmakers, urging them to pass gun control bills, including an assault weapons ban. She began going on speaking engagements with her father.
An article she wrote for Teen Vogue last year sparked positive feedback from others affected by mass shootings, she said. She also wrote about her brother, feelings of loss and hope for the future in a chapter of a book published earlier this year, “If I Don't Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings."
“I lost my brother, so I know how life-shattering a gun can be," she said. “I think it’s just human nature to want to prevent others from feeling that way. We’ve kind of lost our innocence. We can’t sit back and ignore it.”
J.T. Lewis also lost a brother in the shooting, 6-year-old Jesse Lewis. He was a 12-year-old seventh grader at the time. Their relationship was like those of many brothers — lots of fighting and lots of making up, he said.
“As a kid, you grow up really fast when something like that happens to you," he said. “Most 12-year-olds wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. It changes the trajectory of your life."
Lewis, 19, is a political science major at the University of Connecticut and a Republican running for the state Senate.
He never imagined becoming involved in activism. But shortly after the shooting, he found comfort in forming Newtown Helps Rwanda, which has raised college money for relatives of victims of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Unlike many relatives of mass shooting victims, he isn't a gun control supporter. Instead, he favors improving school security and boosting mental health programs.
“I’m tired of watching my politicians fight for gun control to no avail," he said. “Right now, we need to look at other things. You're seeing a lot of shootings now where the measures they wanted to pass wouldn't have prevented anything."
Last December, Lewis was among those invited to the White House as President Donald Trump discussed the findings of a federal school safety commission.
Lewis said there is an extra sadness surrounding this year's anniversary of the shooting, because this is the first year most of the child victims have been dead longer than they were alive.
“The pain is still there," he said. “The lost person is still not there. Nothing is very different between now and last year."
RAYNA TOTH AND OLIVIA DOSCHER
Friends Rayna Toth and Olivia Doscher were third graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in different classrooms, when the shooting happened. Their classes gathered on carpets as teachers closed their doors and covered the door windows with paper.
“I knew when I was sitting in the classroom that I was in danger," Rayna said. “I think ... not knowing if I was going to be OK or if others were going to be OK was ... terrifying."
Olivia remembers one of her friends was crying. Then the school intercom came on with hysterical crying. They huddled in their classrooms until police with big guns came to lead them out of the school.
“At that point in my life, I didn’t know what a shooting was because I was little," Olivia said. “I obviously knew something bad was going on."
For a long time after the shooting, the two girls talked little about their experiences. But when they became sophomores at Newtown High School this fall, both joined the Junior Newtown Action Alliance out because they wanted to prevent others from having to experience what they did.
“I knew I wanted to do it," Rayna said. “I was very young when the shooting happened, so I don’t think I got to use my voice and say what happened to me."
Both have urged federal lawmakers to pass gun control bills. Rayna also has written to families in Santa Clarita, California, where two students were killed and three injured in a high school shooting last month. She told them that it is OK to cry and that help is available to help them cope with their pain.