Sophie Ruotolo has never been much of an activist.
But after watching school shooting after school shooting play out on the news for years, she’s had enough. It was time to do something more.
On Saturday, as hundreds of thousands flood downtown Washington for the anti-
gun-violence March for Our Lives, Ruotolo will walk out of her downtown apartment and into her first D.C. protest.
One thing sets her apart from other would-be first-timers: Ruotolo is 97 years old.
Although the march has been billed as a youth-centered movement led by students, for students, the cause at its core — gun control — has rallied many adults to their cause. Hollywood celebrities have donated millions to the event and announced on social media that they’ll be marching this weekend. Teachers from throughout the nation have organized groups to travel to the District. Parents will march alongside their kids.
And in a traffic circle blocks from the White House, about 50 seniors will hold their own rally in solidarity with the student-led rally along Pennsylvania Avenue.
They’ve been preparing for weeks.
With the help of a local print shop, the seniors have amassed 45 T-shirts, 11 picket signs and a big, green banner they plan to string up between two walkers.
They’ll work the protest in shifts. That way, no one has to stand outside in the cold all day.
The most die-hard of the bunch will picket from 10:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. with signs that denounce the National Rifle Association, demand universal background checks for gun buyers and declare themselves “grannies for gun control.”
And, because they’re grandparents, they’ll also be handing out cookies.
Hundreds of them.
“We’ll be handing out heart-shaped cookies because we want to say to those young people, ‘We love you, and we’re going to do what we can to help take care of you,’ ” Tina Hobson said.
They hope their demonstration brings attention to the fact that it’s not just children who care about this issue, but that it touches people of all ages.
Resident Phyllis Richman, 78, who worked as The Washington Post’s restaurant critic for more than two decades, said that seeing students who have participated in protests and walkouts around the country these past few weeks filled her with a renewed drive to do something to help.
In the retirement community, she said, there is constant programming meant to entertain the seniors who live there: Movie nights, speakers, gym class, spa nights.
“All these things, they’re here to entertain us, and we don’t want to be entertained. We want to help,” Richman said. “We get discounted because we’re women and we’re old and we’re any number of things.”
“But we’re not dead yet,” added Ruotolo.
Richman, who protested the Vietnam War in her youth, called her friend, Hobson, 88, to start organizing.
They thought up slogans for their signs and persuaded grandchildren to design logos.
Hobson, who was married to D.C. city councilman Julius Hobson until his death in 1977, said she is no stranger to activism and was delighted by the opportunity to organize for something she believes in: changes to gun laws.
On the wall in her apartment, Hobson collects buttons and swag from marches she’s attended in years past. Among her prized causes are civil rights, environmental protection, statehood for the District and women’s rights.
This week, her apartment was filled with another kind of memento: mock-ups for the signs she and her fellow residents will carry Saturday.
“We want to get people’s attention,” Hobson said. “So we made sure to include some signs that people might find upsetting. You know, things like ‘bury guns, not kids.’ If that makes you uncomfortable, good.”
Ruotolo, who has 12 great-grandchildren, was on the phone with her 4-year-old great-granddaughter last week when she realized the preschooler was describing an active-shooter drill she had at school that day.
The little girl didn’t know what they were doing, Ruotolo said, but the teachers told students to hide under their desks and to be quiet.
“That hurt me so much,” Ruotolo said. “What kind of childhood do children have today?”
The next day she ran into Hobson. She told her she wanted to volunteer at the rally.
It’s not the first time that Hobson organized a protest at her community.
Hobson and Harriet Fullbright, 84, assembled a small group of women to rally in support of the Women’s March on Washington last year. The setup was similar: They stood in the Thomas Circle roundabout with signs, encouraging cars to honk and greeting rally-goers as they passed.
Some in the retirement community were concerned the women would hurt themselves. They told them it would be best to not go.
But, they did it anyway.
“Protests aren’t dangerous, and we’re not just some fragile old ladies who can’t handle ourselves,” Fullbright said. “We know our limits. We can do this.”
This year, Fullbright said, they have the full support of their community.
On Wednesday, during the height of the nor’easter that rolled through the District this week, a group of them set out to pick up their signs from a print shop about two-and-a-half blocks away.
Bill Fischer, 86, leaned on his cane for support as snow and wind blew past. Hobson held his arm and guided him across the slippery grates.
“Wow, you made it,” Print Express manager Leila Mouenhi exclaimed as the group walked in.
Hobson smiled, then shrugged.
They weren’t going to let a few inches of snow stop them.