Vicky Gordy-Smith lost her 16-year-old son to a single gunshot to the head when a homeowner mistook him for an intruder.
Megan O’Donnell remembers feeling absolute terror when she was trampled under a mass of people as she ran to avoid being mowed down by gunfire at the Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 1, 2017.
And Lanita Brooks lost her oldest son – “the strong one, the protector in our family” – in an instant, when members of a Wilmington gang snuck onto her property and shot “Poppy” in his backyard.
Three survivors of gun violence whose lives were forever altered are now inextricably linked by their passion to take action. On the 6th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, these women – all from Wilmington – shared their horrifying, first-hand experiences with gun violence at an interfaith memorial vigil on Sunday evening at the Friends Meetinghouse in Wilmington.
The Delaware Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America hosted the event, which included remarks, prayers, music, and refreshments. Chapter Leader Sarah Stowens said mass tragedies are horrifying but that the 96 Americans who die every day from homicides and suicides and accidental shootings should not be overlooked.
The organization also presented handmade comfort cloaks to each of the survivors at last night’s vigil.
Megan O’Donnell – Las Vegas mass shooting survivor
O’Donnell, 34, remembers 10:04 pm, the exact minute she came to the realization that what she thought was fireworks were actually gunshots – the moment she says time stopped. When life as she knew it, “living ‘in the before’ was gone forever.”
Stuck beneath others who had fallen on top of her, O’Donnell remembers screaming to her friend Andie Caputo (from Smyrna, DE), “Run! Go!” But Caputo held on to O’Donnell’s hand, and the bullets ‘just kept coming.’ The pair eventually regained their footing, hid briefly behind a cardboard beverage sign, then ran and searched frantically – and in vain – for an exit. With none in site, O’Donnell and her friend ripped through an 8-foot tall chain link fence to escape the chaos of gunfire.
“My heart still drops when I remember the events of that day,” she said.
Vicky Gordy-Smith – parent survivor; son killed in a case of mistaken identity
Gordey-Smith told vigil attendees that she was struck by how quickly life turns when a life ends due to gun violence. She suspects her adopted son Elijah was going to a friend’s house to purchase pot when the homeowner shot him in the head. “I struggled with a loss of identity, a loss of future, a loss of a sense of certainty. I also wrestled with my relationship with God, and to understand what this all meant.”
Gordey-Smith vowed that she would find a way to channel her need for justice. Joining Mom’s Demand Action Delaware was her answer. “I’m sharing my story and doing what I can so that moms can know that their children are safe from gun violence.”
Lenita Brooks – parent survivor; started support group
As soon as 17-year-old Deshon “Poppy” Sellers was released from a Wilmington detention center, mom Lenita Brooks, 40, heard rumors that ‘people wanted to shoot him.’ For more than a week, Brooks managed to keep Deshon safe inside their home. But when the mother of six left to run an errand, Deshon stepped into his backyard with his sister, where he was shot and killed.
“The Touch Money Gang killed my son,” said Brooks. Choking back tears, Brooks said the pain of losing her son four years ago is as fresh today. “My son wasn’t perfect, but he had a good heart and he didn’t deserve to die.”
Moms Demand Action’s Meghan Walls introduced Brooks at the vigil, saying Brooks has become a pillar of strength to other families who have fallen victim to gun violence in Wilmington.
Brooks started a support group called Mending Hearts, where grieving parents talk about lives lost due to gin violence, ways to cope, and how they can help each other.
The solemn occasion was attended by First Lady Tracey Quillen Carney, families honoring survivors, concerned residents and religious leaders and included a musical performance by singer/songwriter John Flynn.
And because students around the state and across the country have played an active role in protesting gun violence, Moms Demand Action also invited two students to perform musical scores and student activist Avery Jones to offer closing remarks.
Jones is a University of Delaware freshman who walked in the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC and led the student walkout at William Penn High School in Wilmington — both last March.
While she says students today live with the perpetual anxiety that they might fall victim to a mass shooting, she also sees a new sense of courage among teens and young adults. “This year I’ve witnessed a change in those around me. And it was the courage to fight back,” said Jones. “I hear passion in the voices of students who want to fix so many issues related to gun violence. This courage… is what drives myself and my peers and gives us confidence and hope for the future.”