PARKLAND, Fla. — “Dear Alyssa, Today is Valentine’s Day,” Lori Alhadeff wrote as she began her letter to her 14-year-old daughter. Her mind flashes back to the same day one year ago.
“You wore a black and white dress. Your long dark hair dangled. Your makeup looked just right. Of course your white Converse sneakers protected your feet as you walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” the letter continued.
Valentine’s Day 2018. It was supposed to be a day of love and affection.
Instead, students in Parkland that day faced the unimaginable.
Alyssa Alhadeff was shot 10 times as she hid beneath a desk, trying to escape the wrath of a gunman roaming the halls of the high school. Alyssa and 16 others would never walk out the doors of that school again.
“It is really hard. I want her back. I just want her back. But I know that’s never going to happen,” Alhadeff said.
She says each day doesn’t get easier, but each day gives new opportunity to use Alyssa’s legacy to spark change.
“I’ve used my grief and tried to channel it into my activism and use my resiliency to try to create change, and use my voice as my power to make that change,” Alhadeff said.
Alyssa’s Law aims to require schools to install panic buttons to immediately alert law enforcement during a crisis.
“My hope is that we can get law enforcement on the scene as quickly as possible,” Alhadeff said. “These school shootings are over in six minutes or less, so we need to get law enforcement here to take down the threat. We need EMS to come in and triage the victims, and we’re going to save lives with Alyssa’s Law.”
Alhadeff has taken her mission one step further: In November, she won a seat on the Broward County School Board, a district plagued with controversy, criticism, and questions since revelations surfaced of missed red flags that many advocates and parents say could have prevented the February 14, 2018 attack from happening.
“We lived in this Parkland bubble. We thought nothing could ever happen here, and people think that all over the country,” Alhadeff said.
Many of the Parkland families have turned activism in the face of tragedy — Alhadeff said it’s one of the few ways she has to cope.
Families are also pushing for change across the board. Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended controversial Sheriff Scott Israel, but he’s stopped short of suspending members of the elected Broward County School Board, who some say hold as much blame.
The governor does not have the legal authority to remove controversial Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie from office because he is appointed, although as a school board member, Alhadeff said she does not think Runcie is qualified for the job.
Closure will never come to the families of Parkland — inquiries, trials, and answers may be years from delivery.
Families are given daily reminders about the tragedy, seen in the empty bedrooms, family photos, and memorials throughout town.
There are promises to demolish the building itself on the campus of Stoneman Douglas High School where the shooting took place, but that, too, is years from reality as it must remain intact until the gunman’s jury trial takes place.
For now, as the days and months move on, families say they are focused on ensuring school safety becomes a focal point of U.S. society, to ensure change happens to prevent any more school violence deaths.
It is the only way they know how to keep the legacies of the 17 alive.
“I think that as a mother who lost a child this way, in such a horrific way, that you want to just tell her what your last words would be to her, how you are feeling and how things are moving on and how much we miss her,” Alhadeff said.
It’s Valentine’s Day. A day full of love, chocolates and flowers.
For me, it is more than that now. Last Valentine’s Day was the last time I saw you. You wore a black and white dress. Your long dark hair dangled. Your makeup looked just right. Of course, your white Converse sneakers protected your feet as you walked in to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Valentine’s Day is now about memories. Today, like all days, I remember.
I remember you weren’t looking forward to going to school that day. Like many 14 year old girls, you wanted a Valentine and were disappointed that you didn’t have one. High school love is magic. I was 14 once and those butterflies had whirled inside of me too.
I wanted that for you.
I remember the golden gift bag I gave you that morning. It held a pair of diamond earrings to make you feel pretty, a chocolate bar to make you smile, and hair ties so you wouldn’t ask for mine.
I touched your ears, putting the stems of the earrings through your lobes. You said you were ready to go to school after that.
You opened the car door.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too,” you said.
Valentine’s Day. The last time I saw you alive. **** A year has been a long time without you. So much has happened I want to tell you about.
I watch your brothers miss you terribly. They want you to know they miss fighting with you. They say thank you for convincing dad to get unlimited WiFi.
Dad fights for you every day. He’s your voice.
Grammy has honored you and became a school safety activist.
We got a dog! Her name is Roxy and she’s a soccer player, like you. She kicks the ball around the yard, but sometimes puts it in her mouth.
And your soccer team… wow, what a group. They wear your number eight on their sleeves and have starting using it sideways to honor you. Infinity.
Oh, and I found out about the time you jumped off a bridge down by the beach?!
Alyssa, you jumped off a bridge?! **** There are things I do in your memory that I never thought I could or would ever do.
See, a mother’s protective instincts don’t leave when we lose the ones we love. I talk to other moms who have lost children. We talk about you. We talk about their kids. But when we look into each other’s eyes, we see it.
I ran for the school board. I won! I screamed on national TV — words of rage directed at the President! I started a non-profit called Make Our Schools Safe and there is a law named after you in New Jersey–Alyssa’s Law. **** Mothers know.
Mine came as soon as someone told me there’d been a shooting at school.
I knew you were gone.
Rabbi Gutnick said, “Have faith, Lori.” I said, “No, you must start planning now.”
You were with me.
I knew it.
We lost 14 students and three teachers. 17 beautiful people we, as a community, needed to bury. You were the first.
The next day, Rabbi Gutnick presided and hundreds of people came from all over the country.
If you remember from Bat Mitzvah classes, shivas last seven days when a loved one dies. In those seven days, I got so many hugs from people who loved you. From family. From people I’d never met. So many that I injured my neck. People, in a sense, loved me until it hurt. **** It’s Valentine’s Day.
As I remember you, grief washes over me. But that grief emboldens me to fight for change.
I wish I could take all the bullets for you.
It’s been a year since I saw you.
You, in that black and white dress, those Converse on your feet, and that smile. I’ll never forget that smile.
It feels like yesterday.
I just want you back.