A year after Sandy Hook, a grass-roots push to prevent gun violence

Nicole Hockley at a press conference on gun control in April 2013. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) Nicole Hockley at a press conference on gun control in April 2013. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

On Saturday, Nicole Hockley will do what she has done every day for the past year. She will mourn the death of her son Dylan, who will forever be 6 years old after he and 19 of his first-grade schoolmates at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were killed by an invading gunman.

“We live with that loss every single day, so the one-year mark is just another day for us,” she said.

Along with her husband, Ian, and Dylan’s big brother, Jake, Hockley will spend Saturday privately, “having some quiet time together,” she said.

In the wake of the violence that also killed six educators, much of the Hockleys’ grief has been visible in public as they have put their energy into advocacy on a number of fronts.

“Everyone deals with grief and loss very differently,” Nicole Hockley said, “and for us it’s all about making change happen and making something positive come from this. If it was just a senseless tragedy, I don’t know if I could live with that.”

Ian Hockley has focused on Dylan’s Wings of Change, a foundation that supports children with autism spectrum disorders and other special education needs. The Hockleys set up the foundation in memory of Dylan, who had autism and who once described himself as “a beautiful butterfly.”

Nicole Hockley has been deeply involved with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit formed by Newtown community members and surviving parents and spouses to help the community through the atrocity and to prevent the causes of gun violence.

“Everyone has to find their own way through loss,” Hockley said. “For my family, it’s about honoring Dylan’s life and providing a legacy for him that honors him and others through making positive change and helping other people.”

Rejecting the notion of being a victim, Hockley said that she and some of the families she works with at Sandy Hook Promise “have a shared grief that we don’t want to just be associated with a tragedy.”

“We don’t want Newtown to be associated just as a place where this horrible event took place,” she said. “And we don’t want people to remember those that we lost truly in sadness. We want this to go from a state of inaction and helplessness to a feeling of hope and things that we can work on together to help prevent this from happening elsewhere, not only to prevent another Sandy Hook from happening but to prevent the hundreds of thousands of acts of violence that occur with a gun in this country every year.”

She added: “We don’t look at it in sadness. It is sadness every day in our hearts, but it’s about what you do after that. How you take that grief and make something constructive.”

Hockley sees an opportunity for constructive action in an initiative called Parent Together, which Sandy Hook Promise introduced on Nov. 14. The program is envisioned as a grass-roots effort “to educate and empower parents and adults across the country to help implement solutions in their own communities that can prevent gun violence in the future,” she said.

In the first phase of the initiative, Parent Together is asking people to make “the Sandy Hook Promise” by signing up on a Web site and pledging to join other parents to encourage and support sensible solutions that help prevent gun violence in our communities and our country.”

“We are going to educate and empower parents and adults across the country to help implement solutions in their own communities that can prevent gun violence in the future,” Hockley said. “That’s in the areas of mental wellness, community connectedness, parenting and gun safety. There’s a lot that can be done just at the community level to prevent an act of violence from happening, that doesn’t require legislation.”

Although media attention focused on failed efforts to pass federal legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases, Hockley said that has always been just a part of the group’s efforts.

“Legislation isn’t the one and only answer,” she said. “We’ve been stuck in this polarized action for far too long. For several decades, nothing’s moved forward. Instead of focusing on our differences, on our politics, or our faith, or our geography, we need to focus on where we have similarities. That’s in the love that we have for our children and the desire for their well-being and safety first and above everything else.”

In 2014, Parent Together will roll out programs to help people take action in their schools and communities in the areas of mental wellness, community connectedness, parenting and gun safety. One of the programs will encourage pediatricians to use a simple diagnostic screener to assess the mental wellness of their patients. The idea is to bring a preventive approach to mental health issues in the same way it is used for physical health issues.

“That’s a simple thing we can start at an earlier stage to help our children ensure that their minds develop as healthily as their bodies develop,” Hockley said.

More than 270,000 have made the Sandy Hook Promise, according to the organization’s Web site. “We want that number to continue to grow,” Hockley said. “It’s going to take many years. Over time, I’d like to see millions of people involved.”

She added: “While we’re having our quiet reflection and privacy we really hope that people around the country show their love and support by making that promise to Parent Together.”

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Soraya Nadia McDonald · December 12, 2013