Monday, March 30, 2009

Andy McDonald - Class of 2000 - Speaker

Describe your experience during the tragedy.

I was in my math class taking an exam. We heard a vibration in the walls (I tell people that it sounded like the room next to you is playing loud music and they have the bass blaring and the walls kind of shake). We looked up and our teacher told us to keep taking our test. I thought, at first, that it was a chemistry teaching doing an experiment. We heard it again and a teacher came by our classroom and told us to stay where we were. Shortly afterwards, the fire alarm went off and so we ended up exiting the building. Instead of going to the front lawn (which was the protocol) the teachers were sending students across the street into Leawood Park. After 10 minutes in the park (a long time for a fire drill) a friend, who was in the parking lot, told us, “One of the trench coat kids just shot some girl in the back.” It was then that we realized that this was more than just a drill and that something serious was really happening. After another 5-10 minutes, there was a loud explosion that all of the students in the park heard and all of us began running and screaming into the neighborhood. I ended up at my friends house and was there for around 4 hours watching everything happen on TV. It was very surreal for me because I was watching all of these people that I know running out of the school and being treated on the street.

When I finally got home I will never forget seeing my parent and how relieved they were that I had made it home safely. I went up to my room and started calling friends to see if everyone was alright. I remember calling Rachel Scott’s house. It went to the answering machine. The message was Rachel’s voice asking to leave a message. That was the last time that I heard her voice and that has always stuck with me.

In the following days and weeks, before we went back for classes, I spent a lot of time at St. Frances Cabrini and at Clement Park. Two things specifically stand out to me in that time. The first was when I saw a student that was in my grade that I had made fun of a lot in middle school and early high school. I saw him and I apologized for being so mean to him. He said that it was ok and we hugged. It’s hard to describe a moment like that but I will never forget how important it was in my life. The other thing that stuck out to me was when a girl in my class was very popular, and I didn’t think even knew who I was, came up to me a few days after the shootings and asked if I was doing alright. She gave me a hug and gave me the first of many CHS ribbons that I would wear, but that one to me will always stand out. Both those moments stand out to me because it didn’t matter who you were or what your status was at the school; everyone was so in need of something and everyone had something to give.

How has the healing process been for you over the past ten years?

For me, the healing process has been interesting. Some of the best advice that I got after the shootings was to not be afraid to talk about it. I have been very fortunate to be able to share my experiences with students across the country for almost 10 years. I think that this has helped in my healing tremendously. It has given me a chance to not only try and turn a negative personal experience into a positive experience/ lesson to others. Talking about it has helped me emotionally and also given me a sense of being proactive to others to try and prevent what happened to us at Columbine from happening again somewhere else and really making a difference in the lives of others.

Update me on your professional life - what have you been doing over the past ten years?

I graduated from Colorado State University in the Winter of 2004 with a degree in History. I worked for Hertz Rental Car for a year and a half. I got married in the summer of 2006 and moved to New Hampshire. I have been working in special education here for about 3 years now in a K-8 school and love what I am doing.

Starting in the fall of 2008 I started working for a non-profit organization called Rachel’s Challenge.

Describe your professional goals.

Hopefully, starting this summer, I am going to start taking classes towards my Masters of Education. I love working in education. To me, there is nothing unappealing about working with students, and working with them not only on their academics, but also working with them to become good people.

About Rachel's Challenge
What is the message behind it?

To reach as many people as possible with the message of kindness and compassion.

How did it get started?

It was started by Rachel’s dad Darrell. Shortly before Rachel died she wrote an essay called “My Ethics, My Codes of Life.” He has been speaking about the life of his daughter for almost 10 years, but Rachel’s Challenge, as an organization, I think has been around for about 3.5-4 years or so.

How many people are involved?

There are about 25 certified presenters. Some are full time, but most are seasonal/ occasional presenters (meaning that when there are a lot of schools asking for the presentation, these people are called on to help out).

How does it work?

It is a 1 hour assembly presentation and, if the school requests it, a 1 hour training with students from that school on how they can take the message they heard that day and use it to make their schools a better place. Also, there is a 1 hour evening community presentation. This is allows community members and parents to come and here the message that their students have heard and, hopefully, start a dialogue.

What is your involvement with it?

I am a seasonal certified presenter.

How long have you been doing it?
For about a year.

Why did you decide to get involved?

The program came to Plymouth Elementary School (where I work) and when I saw it I knew that it was something special and something that I wanted to be a part of. I flew out and interviewed and was asked to come back for training.

What do you hope personally that audiences take from Rachel's Challenge?

To not take the people around them for granted and to respect the differences that people have.

At any point, have you had reservations about being involved in Rachel's Challenge?


What sorts of reactions have you had from audience members? Is there anything that stands out in particular?

Audience members are very thankful once they see it. Often, they will come up with tears in their eyes. It is a very emotional message that really hits home to a lot of people.

Are many other survivors involved in Rachel's Challenge?

Of the 25 or so presenters, I think that there are 4 of us that were at Columbine.

Have you been involved in any other Columbine-related projects.

Here in NH I volunteer every year for a HS leadership conference and do a sit down with students and basically do a Q&A with them and try and help them realize how important respect is.

Has Columbine influenced your career goals? If so, how?

Absolutely. I don’t know if I would be in education today had it not been for my experiences at Columbine.

How did Columbine affect your spirituality?

I would say that I was a religious person before and after, but started to fall off after about my 2nd or 3rd year of college.

Had Columbine happened, how would you be different personally and professionally?

Columbine had a big impact on my life in the way that I look at relationships with people. I started to value those relationships more, both on a personal and a professional level. Columbine is a main reason that I work in education. I find that I can not only build strong personal/ professional relationships there, but I can try and have an impact on the students and how they interact with each other on a daily basis.

Looking around at the world today, what changes (positive OR negative) do you see as a result of Columbine?

I was talking to the Assistant Principal at the school that I work at. He said that he needed schedule a lockdown drill for later this year. I looked at him and said, “Your Welcome!” From an educational standpoint, Columbine changed the game. It has become the buzzword for any type of school violence or bullying that occurs within our school systems. As a result of what happened, I feel that there have been more positive changes made than there have been negative. School security had to take a look at itself and determine if they were indeed as safe as they could be. From a societal standpoint, I think that it made people look at themselves and reassess not only how they treat other people, but also what was most important to them.

Andrew Robinson - Class of 1999 - Filmmaker

Describe your experience during the tragedy.

I was in the school when it started; however, I was towards the center of the building in the computer lab so I didn’t hear any gunfire or commotion until later. The fire alarm went off and the students and teachers in the computer lab began the usual drill to evacuate the school. We figured it was a drill or a prank so there wasn’t any real urgency to any of our actions. When a group of us stepped out into the hallway we saw a large group of students running down the main hallway screaming and flailing their arms. Someone in the crowd shouted “gun” and “they’re shooting people,” which sent many into panic and back into the computer lab where kids dove under desks and in closets.

A couple of friends and I decided to run versus stay in the computer lab and we made our way down one of the side hallways on our way towards the art/music wing. We were able to exit the building from the band entrance and came across a construction fence with dozens of other students. Kids were climbing the fence and helping one another when another student said the shooters were outside. Once again, urgency and panic set in and the fence was brought down enough for everyone to run over and make their way into nearby Clement Park. My friends and I got about halfway across Clement Park, which is quite large, before we stopped to see more students running our way and the police coming in the distance. Helicopters started circling overhead and within moments nearly every square inch of Littleton around Columbine was on lock down.

Prior to this brief moment of pause I didn’t really think about much. However, as we caught our breath the reality of the situation and the need to know the whereabouts of our other friends became priority. We decided to run back towards the school, though it was well blocked off by this time, so we made our way around the back of the student parking lot into a nearby neighborhood. The neighborhood was swarming with police, SWAT and sharpshooters scaling the rooftops of the homes facing Columbine. In the cul-de-sac a triage of sorts had been set up where walking wounded and even the more serious injuries were being treated by parents and a pair of EMTs. The whole scene was very surreal. It was at this time we learned who was doing the shooting, which hit two of my friends whom I was with very hard. Still wanting to find some of our missing friends we ran down the street and flagged down a passing pickup truck who heard on the radio that the displaced students were to go to nearby Leawood Elementary School.

We arrived at Leawood and remained there for the rest of the evening where we got word of those who died and were reunited with those who made it out. The weeks that followed, more importantly the week that followed was absolutely surreal. I didn’t really sleep the night of the shooting, I had gone to my girlfriend’s house to kind of escape it all and ended up watching the news coverage all night. The next morning I went to Clement Park and the place was overrun with news vans, camera men, lights and more people than I think actually live in Littleton. It was a circus. The whole week kind of played out like that, in a sort of fishbowl, pseudo slow motion, pantomime of real life. I remember thinking and many of my friends reiterated this to me that it felt like we were strangers in our own home. We didn’t recognize it. I went one further and likened it to being an animal at a zoo, where the general public wants to see you but still keep their distance. You could tell who the students and teacher were and you could tell who the spectators were, and somewhere amidst it all was the media. I have to admit the way the week that followed played out was at times as violent or more violent, emotionally, to many people myself included than was the actual shooting.

Then, like a light switch being turned on and off, the media disappeared and the public interest waned allowing for much of the real healing and rehabilitation to begin. The weeks that followed I didn’t have much to do with the school. I wanted to be away form all of that so I worked double shifts, spent time with friends away from Littleton and basically closed myself off.

How has the healing process been for you over the past ten years? Please describe it.

Truthfully, I think I’m one of the more fortunate ones in that I was able to deal with the reality and gravity of what had happened fairly well. I had spells where something would get to me or I’d actually forget that it had all happened and I’d catch myself phoning my slain friend, but that stuff didn’t really last long for me. I had a brief bout with survivor guilt, which was replaced by a fair amount of anger but that too passed.

Leaving Colorado a few months later and relocating to California helped a great deal as well for it allowed me to be a new person in many regards. I never told anyone where I was from or where I went to school, they knew me as Andrew Robinson, the kid that showed up at Art Center. Moving to California also exposed me to a much larger world that you just don’t see in Littleton, which also helped tremendously with my perspective on life. I spent a lot of time breaking it and myself down and going over not so much what happened but what I wanted to learn and or come away with. I suppose I’ll always have a stray memory or two that will catch me from time to time but I’d like to think for the most part, I’m okay with it all.

Update me on your professional life - what have you been doing over the past ten years?

Professionally my life has been a rollercoaster ride and a good one at that. I graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and went to work a week later in entertainment advertising for ABC. I worked on a lot of great television shows and some, not so great reality shows. My job was to create print campaigns and strategically market new shows to the general public. I left my gig working for ABC after a year and did some work for CBS, helping with the launch of CSI: Miami, and a couple of other pilots. I was a freelance employee so when my contract expired I began working for a smaller entertainment firm called Crew Creative Advertising. I spent the last five or so years at Crew working on a number of theatrical releases and marketing campaigns ranging from Harry Potter to Rambo 4 and seemingly everything in between. A little over 2 years ago I went to help form a television division of Crew Creative where I remained until September of last year when I resigned my position and effectively retired from entertainment advertising to work on April Showers and Pure+Motive full time.

Describe your professional goals.

World domination really, I mean is that too much to ask? All kidding aside, I want to be happy and creative and help others do the same, which is why we’ve formed Pure+Motive. Filmmakers and even the audience don’t really have a voice anymore, the entire entertainment industry is running on auto pilot, just stamping out the same wares year after year. There is a lot of creativity and passion out there and the audience is clamoring for it there just isn’t a legitimate place for this creativity to call home. I want to help create that home and be responsible for putting out content, be it my own or someone else’s, that audiences respond too.

How did Columbine affect you spiritually?

Spirituality is a funny thing. I consider myself very spiritual but I am not religious. I believe its possible to be a decent human being that feels in someway connected to others and this universe without having to slap a label on it. I’m cool with people needing to believe what it is that makes them happy and secure for who am I to judge or say their way is wrong, but I’m anti the close-mindedness that doesn’t allow for others to believe what they want, which I equate to religion and not spirituality. No one’s “God” is better than another “God” and no one has the right to say his or her way of life is better than the next, it’s just different and that’s what I find interesting and compelling. I can’t say that Columbine provided me with this so-called insight but it did cement it to a fair extent. I could go on and on about this topic but I’ll just leave it at that.

Had Columbine not happened, how would you be different, personally and professionally?

Truthfully, I think I would’ve ended up largely the same way professionally for I made a pact with myself after Columbine that I would continue down the path I was pursuing prior to April 20. I’ve always wanted to be in the position professionally that I am in today, while I clearly wouldn’t have made April Showers or taken part in this interview had Columbine not occurred, I’m fairly certain I would still be in the entertainment industry.

Personally, I’d probably have a lot in common with myself now.

Looking around at the world today, what changes (positive OR negative) do you see as a result of Columbine?

Ahh, the question I always get asked and never seem to answer correctly for most people. I don’t think a whole lot of good has come out of Columbine on a mass scale. Personal level(s) are one thing, but on a cultural or social level I think we may have done more (and continue to do) permanent damage than overall good.

Please allow me to explain. School shootings are tragic but unfortunately seem to be a part of our culture now. I don’t think there is a clear-cut way to end them or prevent them. On a case-by-case basis some maybe more avoidable than others but on a whole I believe they are going to continue to happen as sad as that sounds. I know after Columbine (and other public events that result in mass death) we are quick to ban a lot of things, take a no tolerance policy, institute nametags etc. I think as a species we’re quick to fear what we don’t understand and instead of trying to truly learn from one another or what the universe is trying to tell us. Instead we sort of take half measures that go just far enough to curb our fear without ever really having to address the problem.

For example, after Columbine there was a big revolt against guns, violent video games, heavy metal music and black clothing to name a few. Schools around this country, including Columbine, went so far as to outright ban many of these items and frankly forms of self-expression. I don’t believe any of these things or any combination of these things make a person a killer, I believe it’s more complicated than that and over simplifying the issue to a few outside stimuli is actually dangerous because we’re not addressing the bigger issues. For instance, I listened to Marylyn Manson, I played violent video games, and I rather enjoy the occasional trip to a firing range does that make me a killer? No. There are millions of people, I’d say the vast majority of people, who can do all the same things day in and day out that these shooters do but don’t feel the need to take a life as a result of it.

So what drives a person to view reality through violent lenses versus the lenses we all seem to be able to see through without getting a skewed image? The issue(s) that serve as the breaking point and or motivator for these actions occurs long before they pick up a rock album or video game.

Another thing to consider is that the motivator is different for each individual and it’s reckless to assume all of these violent individuals had similar or identical motivations.

I wonder what would happen if we took the energy we spend being hyper vigilant for signs of danger and applied that same energy to being open, truly open, to knowing more about the person standing next to us what the result would be. Because all the cameras, name tags, metal detectors, uniforms etc aren’t going ultimately stop someone from doing harm to another if they want to. The cameras will only record the act, they won’t walk through the metal detectors and because they’re already students they’ll have their badges, which will grant them access to the school to carry out what ever they’ve planned. It’s half measures and money wasted. Now I agree and support the new law enforcement policies that state that if an active shooter is present they are to enter and neutralize the threat by any means necessary. That is a good thing, and evacuation drills are always good be it for a fire, earthquake or act of violence. When something like a Columbine event is happening you need to remove yourself from the situation as quickly and safely as possible, no question, and let law enforcement do their job to hopefully bring about a safe resolution. But I think steps can be taken long before a Columbine like event even arises.

Schools must truly promote knowledge, understanding, compassion and acceptance for all students regardless of who they are or what they believe. It’s actually harder than it sounds, for we’re all just people with our own prejudices and histories that can cloud our judgment, subsequently passing it along to impressionable minds. Kids must be free to express themselves openly without fear of being shunned, judged or bullied as a result. Education goes beyond books and simple tests taken in a beige building. It’s not about getting into a premiere college or scoring the high paying job. Education is exciting not something that should be put into little blocks of time between lunch and the weekend.

Then there is the issue with the media coverage but we’ll leave that for another day.

Where can people buy April Showers

After that last question this seems awkward and somewhat comical. People can view April Showers at their local theater provided it’s playing in their neighborhood or city on April 24 2009. If we’re not in your city you can purchase the film on iTunes starting on May 5 2009. It will be on DVD and other pay per view sights like Amazon in June.

Richard Hoover - Class of 2001 - Speaker

What year did you graduate? 2001

Describe your experience during the tragedy.

At the time when the shooting happened I was in weights class, just outside the gym. Someone came into the weight room and told our teacher (coach Marshall) that there was someone down in the commons with a gun. So he left without telling anyone in the weight room. We continued to work out, when the fire alarm went off, at first we thought it was a senior prank. Then we decided we should probably go outside, once we exited the door in the weight room the first thing I noticed was what sounded like fireworks (found out later it was the pipe bombs). It took awhile to realize that this was a serious situation. April 20th was probably one of the longest days/nights of my life, I spent the night with friends watching tv, praying and just talking. We waited till the next morning to see who had actually died, we had an idea about a few people, I initially knew Dylan was involved because of the police surrounding his car. In the weeks following it was interesting, I knew my life would never be the same again.

How has the healing process been for you over the past ten years? Please describe it.

The last 10 years have been interesting, the next 2 years at school were different, I became really close with a lot of my friends and didn't focus too much on my schooling. I don't know if that was a direct result of the shooting but I like to think so. After I graduated I moved to California, where my friends out there used to introduce me as the Columbine kid, that was an adjustment, but after time I got used to it, answering the same questions over and over. I started speaking my junior year of high school, and have been doing so since then.

Update me on your professional life - what have you been doing over the past ten years?

After high school I moved to California and got a job with the Oakland Athletics, and did some speaking on the side, speaking made it difficult for me to go to school, so I have put college off since, now that I am slowing down speaking college is now a priority.

Describe your professional goals.

I have had a passion for speaking for almost 10 years, but now I am starting to realize that if I want to start a family, and a life for that matter, that I need to pursue other things, I have always wanted to help people so I plan on pursuing a career in law enforcement.

About Rachel's Challenge
What is the message behind it?

RC's message is pretty simple, it's to promote kindness and compassion. Rachel Scott was the first person shot and killed at CHS and she left behind several journals, and essays that her family found after her death. In those letters Rachel talked about the importance behind kindness and compassion.

How did it get started?

Rachel's Challenge was started by Rachel's father Darrell after her death, since then RC is the number one high school assembly program in the country, each year the number of students the program reaches grows numerously.

How many people are involved?

Currently there are 30 speakers, and a full staff.

How does it work?

Currently there are 2 programs, Rachel's Challenge (year 1) and Rachel's Legacy (year 2) also there is a program called Friends of Rachel or F.O.R. for short, which is a program that stays with the students after the speaker leaves the school.

What is your involvement with it?
I am a program presenter

How long have you been doing it?

I have been with RC since 2007

Why did you decide to get involved?

Well after speaking on my own for years, and doing events with Rachel's brother Craig, I decided to join the organization to share Rachel's story.

What do you hope personally that audiences take from Rachel's Challenge?

I hope the students understand that a little kindness goes along way. It's not about changing the world with one big swoop, Rachel was one girl, in a quiet in Littleton Colorado, that wanted to leave her legacy and wanted to change the world for the better, and all it took was kindness and compassion, I think that is the most important message.

At any point, have you had reservations about being involved in Rachel's Challenge?

I have been speaking for 10 years, so I have begun to slow down my traveling with RC, it is something that I feel like I will always be involved with, it is an amazing organization changing thousands of students lives every day!

What sorts of reactions have you had from audience members? Is there anything that stands out in particular?

There are countless of stories of lives being changed by the program. The reaction is usually a sense of inspiration to change their thoughts, and the way students treat eachother.

What kinds of long term changes have you seen as a result of Rachel's Challenge?

There are several stories that we as speakers hear about once a week talking about different stories inspired by Rachel's story, from suicide preventions to even school shootings being stopped. It truly is a life changing program, and a very important and impactful presentation.

Are many other survivors involved in Rachel's Challenge?

Currently, there are 5 students that were there that day who are presenters.

Have you been involved in any other Columbine-related projects?

Before I joined Rachel's Challenge, I worked with several different programs and projects throughout the country. Pathufind communications is one of them.

Has Columbine influenced your career goals? If so, how?

Seeing the impact that Columbine as a whole has had on the country has inspired me to want to reach out and help people, so yeah in a way it has changed my influnce on career choices.

How did Columbine affect your spirituality?

I was not religious before actually, and that day took a toll on me spiritually, I started talking to a friend in California the night of the shooting till the early hours of the morning about God, and about 2 months later I was baptized, and have attended church regularly since then.

Had Columbine happened, how would you be different personally and professionally?

Well, that's hard to say as I was a sophmore, and still wanted to be a major league baseball player, but I also had plans on joining the millitary which never happened because of that day.

Looking around at the world today, what changes (positive OR negative) do you see as a result of Columbine?

I believe Columbine has changed the world in the sense that it was an awakening that school shootings can happen anywhere, although before that day there were several in the country, but Columbine seemed to wake the beast. I still believe that people will have their opinions on why Columbine happened, and how their school system is different. But I believe there are schools that are naieve enough to believe it can't happen, and when that train of thought occurs, I believe is when they leave themselves vulnurable to the probability of it actually happening.

Alise Steiner - Class of 2000 - Teacher/Coach

Describe your experience during the tragedy.

When the shooting started I was in Mr. Smith’s math class. We had a sub that day and I remember being somewhat relieved when the fire alarm went off. As my class entered the hallway everyone was extremely pushy and I remember saying to my friend, “aren’t we supposed to remain calm during fire drills?” We proceeded to cross Pierce Street and jump a small fence. I wondered why were going so far away from the school. Maybe it was a real fire? I saw one of my friends who looked pale and I could tell she had been crying. I asked her what was wrong and she said people where shooting outside the cafeteria. A second later, someone said it was just a senior prank. I remember thinking my friend was just having a bad day. It had to be a senior prank. A few of us from Bible Club gathered together and prayed while we were waiting for further instructions as to what we should all be doing. I remember watching as more people exited the building and I thought it was strange that it took them so long to get out. Maybe they were in the bathroom? I tried to rationalize everything. Everyone was searching for someone else. People were split up as they ran out of the building. I did not worry though, I felt confident it was just a prank. I decided to walk over to ask a teacher what to do. As I walked toward my French teacher, the entire group of students started running. I turned around and yelled for my friend to wait. I grabbed her hand we ran into the neighborhood. It was at that moment, I first felt scared. We ended up following a group of students into a home near Columbine. As I watched the story unfold on television, I thought the media was overreacting. This was no big deal. At most someone shot one other person over a girl. At 5pm that night, the news said up to 25 people dead. That’s when it hit me, and I started to worry about where my friends were.

The initial days following the tragedy were kind of a blur. Rumors were flying about what had happened and who had been killed. When the official list of students who were killed came out it was heartbreaking. I did not know how to deal with the loss of friends and classmates. After attending Rachel Scott’s funeral I felt I could not go to more funerals. I did not want to feel more sadness. I started journaling and praying, trying to deal with the pain. When we returned to Chatfield, it was good for me to be with people, and to hear stories from my peers.

How has the healing process been for you over the past ten years?

I think the healing process started when I was able to tell my story. After graduating in 2000, I went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Everyday I would meet new people and tell them where I was from. Immediately they would ask if I went to that school. As much as it still hurt, I needed to talk. I needed to tell my story and process it. It was good for me to open up and share with others. Most people were kind and encouraging and shared where they were when it happened and what their experience was. I was and still am amazed by how many people were impacted by what happened.

Even though time has eased the pain, I believe everyone is still healing from that day. What each person experienced that day will never be forgotten. I was lucky in the sense that I did not see any violence that day. But my world was changed. I will forever be different because of what happened.

Update me on your professional life - what have you been doing over the past ten years?

Today, I am a teacher and a coach. This is the end of my 4th year teaching and coaching at Columbine. I teach math (Pre-Calc, Honors Geometry and Algebra I) and coach cross-country and girls lacrosse.

What is your current job title and where?

Math teacher/coach at Columbine High School

Why did you decide to teach at Columbine?

Wow, I don’t think I really expected to come back to Columbine. I wanted to return to Colorado and be close to my parents and my sister. I applied all over Jeffco but I did not have my Colorado teaching license at the time I was applying. Mr. DeAngelis remembered me and hired me without the teaching license. I was thrilled to have a job and be hired at a good school. The fact that the school was Columbine made me nervous, yet excited. I have great memories from high school even though I experienced great sadness there as well.

Were there any particularly hard moments about returning to teach at Columbine?

Sure. The building is different. It’s weird every time I have to walk to the ISS room or the new library. Hearing Mr. Moore shout “We Are. . . .” and all the students respond “Columbine!” always plays on my emotions. Even though I am constantly reminded about the events of that day, I think those moments also remind me why I am there. To make a difference in the lives of the students. I believe students in high school need someone who will listen and encourage them. They may have great parents, but sometimes a parent’s encouragement is just not enough. Each day I enter the building I hope the students see a place to belong and a place where they feel encouraged and cared for.

Describe your professional goals.

I plan to continue teaching and coaching. I am finishing my masters this summer.

Has Columbine influenced your career goals? If so, how?

Yes, I think my experience at Columbine influenced my decision to become a teacher.

Do your students ask about your experience during Columbine? What kinds of questions come up?

Yes. They are always shocked to find out I went to Columbine and was there the day of the shooting. They ask where I was, what it was like and if I knew any of the people who died that day.

How do you explain your experience? What sorts of messages do you convey to your students about your experience?

I tell them about that day – that’s the easy part. Sometimes I tell them what I learned from that day and why it is so important that they accept each other and stop putting themselves above others. I stress the importance of kindness towards each other – no matter who that person is or what kind of group they hang out with.

What are their reactions to your experience?

Many of them have their own stories to share. Even though they were young, many remember that day. Others have siblings or cousins who were there. Mr. Sander’s grandson attended Columbine and ran cross-country for me a few years back. This is still the same community of people. Even this group of students is impacted by what happened 10 years ago.

Does a particular conversation with a student stand out? If so, please describe.

Oh wow, there have been many conversations with students. Usually I listen. High school students already have many experiences that have shaped who they are. I am amazed by their maturity and depth. Students understand much more than we realize.

How did Columbine affect your spirituality?

I grew up going to church. I went to youth group throughout middle school and high school. When Columbine happened, I questioned God and many of the leaders at my church. I believe the events at Columbine stretched me and made me see who I really was. I realized I needed to change. I was living a selfish life. But I wanted something different and I needed to be something different. I hope I became more Christ-like.

Had Columbine happened, how would you be different personally and professionally?

Many events and people in my life shaped who I am today and Columbine is one of those events. I believe Columbine impacted me both personally and professionally. I am more aware of how I treat others. I realized each person has a story and his or her story is important. God places each person in our lives for a reason, and I am more willing to listen and more willing to accept others for who they are and where they came from.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Crystal Miller - Class of 2000 - Author and Speaker

Describe your experience during the tragedy.

I spent the first several years of high school, consumed with gaining the approval of my peers. I was plagued with the belief that I was average and would never be great at anything. I tried, to no avail, to be a straight A student, to be a superstar athlete, to be prettier, funnier, and to be the most popular girl at school. Don’t get me wrong, I was descent at some of these things, and did have some really good friends, but never felt as though I could compare to my above average peers. Like most typical teenagers searching for acceptance, I made a lot of poor choices, drinking, trying drugs on one occasion and allowing guys to take little pieces of my heart weekend after weekend. Personally it just wasn’t working for me. Yet, everything would change my life and my belief about myself in the blink of an eye.

During my lunch hour, on Tuesday April 20, 1999 I found myself in the library at Columbine High School, studying for an important physics test I had forgotten about the night before. I begged two of my friends, Seth and Sara Houy (siblings), to join me there and help me study. The three of us were talking in low whispers, catching up on one another’s day, and after about five minutes, chaos began to break out in and around the school. We saw panicked students running through the halls, and heard a lot of loud noises, which prompted Seth to run to the windows in the library overlooking the schools student parking lot. He witnessed students running from the school, but couldn’t make sense of anything, and returned to our table to reassure us that there was nothing to worry about. Desperate to believe my friend, fear overtook me as a teacher burst into the library saying, “There are two boys with guns and bombs, shooting students, get under your tables, hide under your tables!” As she picked up the phone to call the police, I looked to the entrance again and noticed a wounded classmate run through the doors and stumble to the ground in horror. With that, Seth, Sara and I fumbled to take cover under our table. Almost instantly, Seth wrapped his arms around my head and body and whispered these words in my ear, “Crystal, I promise I will take a bullet for you!” Confident that my own death was imminent, I basically cried out to God, and promised I would give Him my life and quit doing bad things, if He got me out alive and gave me a second chance to live.

As I finished that prayer, I endured the worst seven and a half minutes of my entire life, when the two killers entered the room and began their killing rampage. I listened as they gunned down friends and classmates, laughing at them, mocking them and then ending their young lives in the most gruesome ways imaginable. Their voices were filled with an eerie excitement, as they continued weaving in and out of tables for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, they approached the middle section of the library (they had already killed students in the first and last sections), where I was hiding. My body was literally convulsing with the fear that penetrated every fiber of my body, the shock almost even caused me to wet my pants, but I was able to hold it together. At one point, I remember what felt like shrapnel hitting my legs (which was later confirmed when I returned to the library with FBI that a pipe bomb had exploded next to our table). I thought the most absurd thought to myself as I pulled my gum out of my mouth, “when I get shot, I don’t want to choke on my gum!” As I held my gum tightly, waiting for a sharp bullet to pierce my side, and waiting for death to come, the boys killed the young man just a few feet away from us, then turned to our table and pushed a chair underneath hitting me in the arm. I saw my life literally flash before my eyes, my past, my regrets, my hopes and dreams for the future slipping away and my family and friends who would never truly know my love for them, for I would never have the chance to tell them. Hardly, taking a breath, for fear of what the next second might hold, the two began talking about how they ran out of ammunition. They had to go reload (they left their ammo outside of the library) but made it clear they would return to kill the rest of us. At that moment, I was not thinking I could escape, because I didn’t want to leave the protection of my table. Seth then pulled Sarah I to our feet, and told us to leave everything behind, and run as fast as we could out of the library. I followed Seth through the smoke-filled room, and frantically looked around at the destruction the two left in the wake of their terror; it literally looked like a war had taken place. Shards of glass littered the floor, fires sprung up everywhere from the pipe bombs, the fire alarms continued to blare out the emergency, strobe lights were flashing, blood was splattered on the floor and walls, and I was forced to step over the bodies of my classmates so I could save myself. We finally escaped out of the school, outside an exit near the rear of the library, before the two killers came back to kill themselves. Students were shot at, running from the building, as we hid behind a police car, a few short yards from the school. We stayed there, until police could safely come and take all of us away (with an emphasis on the most wounded first). I was dropped off in a field behind the school, beneath Rebel Hill (named by cross country runners at CHS). I had been separated from Seth and Sara at this point, and was terrified that I was no longer safe anywhere. I hadn’t begun to process what I had just experienced, but I knew my life would never again be the same….

The days, weeks and months to follow were a painful blur, searching for answers to the question, “WHY?” It seemed like an endless stream of memorial services, and funerals of peers, friends and a beloved coach. Stories of heroism and bravery began to emerge from the tragedy, giving us small glimmers of hope in the darkness. I can’t say for certain, but after research and talking to people, we learned that our table, the one Seth, Sara and I hid under, was the only one or two out of twenty-some that didn’t have at least one student killed or injured. There was really no logical reason I should have lived through that experience, especially in light of knowing that the library was the scene of the most intense violence. Ten of the thirteen were killed in the same room where I was clinging to life, and some fourteen out of twenty-five were wounded there as well.

Our once quiet, safe, and innocent community was inundated by a barrage of media from around the world, and it felt like a good majority of them came knocking on my door. In retrospect, telling my story over and over again would prove to be cathartic for me, but it would also, enable me to begin sharing a message of hope to people in all circumstances. Not to mention become a voice against future violence in schools.

For many years, my emotions would run the gamut, and vary in severity. I experienced many emotions; ones I never even knew existed. To name a few, I have felt grief, confusion, rage, hopelessness, depression, doubt, guilt, shame, and for years a debilitating fear about many things. Every night for two solid years, I would relive the tragedy through threatening nightmares. I know it sounds miserable, but initially I desperately wished I had been one of the students killed that day. I questioned why I lived, and so many of my amazing classmates had to die. As far as I was considered, they were selfless, kind and loving people who sought to make their world a better place, while I simply lived a selfish life without leaving behind any kind of meaningful legacy. I became close with several of the families who lost loved ones, who continually inspired me to live my life despite all that had happened.

As I journeyed on, hopelessness turned to hope, pain into joy, weakness into strength, chaos into peace, and ashes became something beautiful (I don’t want to make it sound like this happened over night, or that it was an easy process, because it wasn’t). About a year after the tragedy, I allowed myself to forgive the two boys who had caused so much pain. I knew unforgiveness would only cause me to be a bitter, angry person, and that was not something I wanted my life to be characterized by. I had a sense of urgency to make the most of every single breath I was given and to live life to the fullest, no longer taking anything for granted. I knew there had to be more to life than all the things I once thought were so important. I wanted to change my life and help others. I learned a valuable lesson; that second chances rarely come around, and here I was given that chance. Although my desire was to impact the world, I had no idea where to begin….

How has the healing process been for you over the past ten years? Please
describe it.

I had no idea how to bring about healing from such a life-changing tragedy, but I knew that my newfound faith in Jesus Christ would be paramount to the process. Personally, it was the only thing I had left when all else failed. As far as I am concerned, I am the person I am today because of the Lord’s love and faithfulness. He has used a variety of life experiences to widen my perspective on the world around me.

I have had the opportunity to travel around the world and even live abroad, where I have discovered time and again, people living in the most dismal situations I have ever witnessed. While my tragedy lasted seven and a half minutes under that table, people around the world are facing a tragedy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; theirs is a tragedy that will never end. Some face unimaginable horror during war, violence and natural calamity, while others suffer through poverty, hunger, lack of clean water and shelter. Some struggle with indescribable sickness and physical pain. Although it is not true for everyone, my awareness of the human condition in third world countries was vital in my healing process. Often times, when I was able to take my eyes off of my own misery and reach out to others during times of their affliction, I found life returning to my weary bones, the broken pieces of my heart mending and becoming whole again and glimmers of hope shining through the darkness.

At the end of 1999 I traveled to war-torn Kosovo, a short time after the war had drawn to a close. I saw a land ravished by war, hatred and revenge. I saw cities burned to the ground, I saw bombed out buildings and hospitals and met people who lost limbs because of land mines. I met children orphaned by the devastation of war, and heard endless accounts of the fear people endured for years. During my first trip to Kosovo I came in contact with a young girl named Donika who had lost her father and other family members during the war, and was forced to hide for weeks away from the enemy without food or water in the dead of winter, and then run for days to reach safety in another country. Immediately our hearts were connected by tragedy, and even to this day, Donika inspires me and has taught me that it’s ok to laugh, smile and live again.

I have lived throughout Central America, where there is a painful separation between the extremely wealthy and extremely impoverished. One could drive for miles on end and see nothing but an overwhelming amount of people living in shacks among wretched filth. One of my jobs was to build water purification systems so people could have the luxury of clean drinking water (a luxury only to people without clean water). I worked with a local man by the name of Paul. Every day Paul would ride his broken down bike to our plant, often wearing the same clothes as the previous day, and a smile stretching from ear to ear. One day we worked late and he asked us if we could give him a ride home, of course we agreed! We pulled into his village and up to his house to find his wife and two kids living in a tiny hut of corrugated steal and cardboard. His wife was selling a few small items of soda and chips out of the front window of the house, while two of his children, smudged with dirt and mud ran around without clothes, entertaining themselves with an old, moldy box. Paul taught me a lot that year, like how to be content with very little, how to find joy in an otherwise desperate situation and how to love ones family by doing whatever it takes to provide.

I also lived in Africa and visited several of times since. Once I went to Africa it changed everything. Living among people in the bush restored my faith in humanity and expanded my love for the outcasts. I knew I had to become a voice for those who didn’t have a voice in this world. I moved to Mozambique Africa with an NGO called Samaritan’s Purse. My objective was to teach woman and girls about the Bible and about AIDS prevention. After only a few short days, the women and children had reached in and grabbed a hold of my heart refusing to let go. I was so burdened by their plight, but also uplifted by the fact that they never gave into the oppression or hopelessness. When my friend Sianeta’s grass hut burned down, a community of people surrounded her with love and provided supplies until her house could be rebuilt.

When I would visit friends in the hospital, I knew the pain from the HIV/AIDS was excruciating, but they were concerned for me, and how I was doing more than themselves.

Every morning the sweet sound of children’s voices would beckon me to come outside and play, so if even just for a few minutes they could escape the hell that was their lives on a daily basis.

One of my friends Abdi would go to school and study many hours each day, seeking to achieve his goal to one day become a lawyer, but knowing his dream would never be realized because he lived in the middle of nowhere.

Each and every person taught me never to take anything for granted and to be thankful for the things I have.

My adventures to, Beslan Russia, after the terrorist attack against children, to Indonesia after the Tsunami, and to London to attend a peace conference between children of Northern Ireland are only a snapshot of my travels and the people I have met, but I carry every single story and person with me wherever I go, and it gives me strength to carry on when things get difficult. After each experience, I saw the ice that had formed over my heart start to melt away as I learned to feel again. Hope was restored and I had found a new purpose for my life.

In addition to my work abroad, I was starting to enjoy speaking and sharing my story in a variety of venues around the globe. Never once did I share for personal or financial gain, even though many have accused me of profiting off of my communities’ suffering. Every time another school shooting would happen, my heart would break all over again and it only increased my passion to see violence in schools come to an end so no one would have to face the inconceivable anguish. Speaking was therapeutic for me, but also seemed to be making an impact in the lives of the people I shared it with. Many doors flung wide open to speak more and more, so I decided to focus a little more on speaking as a career.

By 2002 I was on the road speaking full-time. Not to mention, I was a full-time student. Juggling my schedule was challenging, but completely worth it. I was speaking on my own in schools, churches, at luncheons and conferences. I was approached once again by Samaritan’s Purse who asked if I would like to become their national spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child (a project for less fortunate children). It was a perfect fit for me, so I spoke for them, and continued to do a little speaking of my own on the side. After several years with them, speaking and working overseas, my focus began to shift. For years I had dreamed of writing a book to tell my story, and I was given the chance in 2005. As I was writing my book, Marked for Life, another incredible opportunity dropped in my lap. I was called by the lead singer of a rock band and was asked to go on tour with them long term and share my story of survival and challenge in schools as they performed!

Needless to say, not only was my faith, my trips overseas and my speaking essential for my healing, but I also had an incredible support system with my family, friends and husband. I couldn’t be more blessed to have so many people who have walked this road with me. I do not know how people go through difficulties without a community walking beside them through good times and bad.

Update me on your professional life - what have you been doing over the
past ten years?

Over the years I have found myself in a career path that I never would have chosen for myself, but couldn’t be more excited about where that path has led me thus far. The past ten years I have been a relief worker, a speaker, an author and now a writer for a film company.

As a speaker, I have worked with many different organizations speaking on their behalf. Samaritan’s Purse and their children’s Christmas project called Operation Christmas Child. I have done some spokesperson work with Food for the Hungry, a child sponsorship organization, OneHope, and others. Along with rock band Vota (formerly Casting Pearls) we started the 180 Tour in schools around the United States as well as Germany and Switzerland.

Although I still do a lot of speaking, I have taken a step back from the demands of the road to focus on a documentary film called, Columbine Everywhere, the film includes my story along with other survivors from various school shootings around the world, as well as, those who have chosen to act violently. For the past year I have worked with EthnoGraphic Media, a company committed to raising awareness to issues that we all face on a global scale, calling young people to action in effort to seek change in our world. Columbine Everywhere will explore what is human in all of us. It will look at the causes of school shootings, and the choices we are faced with that shape our lives through hardship. I never would have imagined I would find myself in the film industry, let alone believe I was capable of writing a screenplay, yet somehow I find myself right in the middle of the learning process and loving every second of it! Throughout the last year, I have met many survivors from places around the U.S., Germany, Australia, Canada, Russia, and Finland. Their stories have given me strength and inspiration to keep fighting against the epidemic of school violence. Our company is now moving into the production phase of filming, and eager for a release in a couple years!

Describe your professional goals.

I would say that one of the most immediate goals I have for my professional life is to see the film, Columbine Everywhere finished and available to the public. In the process of writing and researching for Columbine Everywhere, I have also written a series of short films that I am looking to produce with a small independent filmmaker in Oklahoma City.

I would also love to continue writing in whatever capacity I can, as well as, continue to speak, but speak about more than just my experience at Columbine. I believe that I am more of who I am today because of what happened to me on April 20, 1999, but it doesn’t define me. I have a lot of things I am incredibly passionate about, and would love to use my platform and voice to speak that out. I would love to be an agent of change in regards to international affairs such as sex trafficking of young girls, AIDS, poverty and the need for clean water.

Although, I still do not believe that I am particularly gifted or extraordinary at anything, I do have dreams to continue on with my photography, and would eventually like to see my children’s books published.

I do not know what the future holds, but am excited to see what is next, because I have yet to experience a dull moment.

What I do know for certain, is that I am ready to see the Columbine chapter of my life come to a close. With the completion of Columbine Everywhere, I feel like it will be an exclamation point to a major life chapter, and allow me to move forward in new ways. Not to say I have been stuck in the past, but I can begin to do the other things on my heart.

Describe your work as a public speaker.

Life as a public speaker has always been very demanding of my time, but also incredibly rewarding which is what drives me and gives me the motivation to keep going even when my energy lacked and my body was physically weary. There have been days when I have spoke five or six times, one right after another, taking a huge mental, physical and emotional toll. Not to mention the endless airports, flights (along with delays and layovers), bus trips, and road trips on very little sleep. During the three years on the 180 Tour, I traveled with six sometimes twelve guys in a stinky tour bus speaking and playing in cities across the nation. Every morning we would wake up before the sun to unload heavy production gear into schools and other venues, and we wouldn’t rest until late at night. I would be one the road for weeks on end and come home and crash before it was time to pack up and do it all over again. I was away from Pete, my husband and found it difficult to invest in friendships and get involved in other things back home. I believe in 2007 I traveled over 200 some days throughout the year. It sounds rough, but I actually loved it and still love it. Yet, I believe in many ways I was making that lifestyle an identity and finding my value in what I did. Business and a successful career are not worth it if it comes at the cost of relationships between family and friends. Therefore, about a year ago, I decided to take a little break and rest at home for a little while and work on the film.

The 180 Tour was started by myself and Vota (formerly Casting Pearls) which was a non-violent, character building school assembly program primarily for junior high and high school students around the nation in public schools. Our aim was to inspire young people to change their world today! Our goal was to challenge them in their choices, their decision making, and open their eyes to realize that they have the potential to make a difference and it starts by the way they treat their fellow classmates. I would always challenge students to look for ways to reach out to their peers who were alone, outcast and ostracized in respect and kindness.

The venue and audience size would always vary depending upon where we were and what the specific objective of the event was. The 180 Tour was generally held in school auditoriums or large gymnasiums, to a range of audience sizes again dependant upon whether we were in the inner city, the burbs or out in the middle of nowhere. Apart from the 180 Tour I have done a lot of random engagements (it’s seriously funny how many groups and clubs seek out guest speakers), from churches, to retreats, youth camps, leadership events, boys and girls clubs, business meetings, conferences, luncheons and festivals. For example I have spoken and even emceed at several outdoor music festivals during the summer months, which range anywhere from 7,000 to 15,000 people. My favorite events are in conjunction with music because I always think it makes the message well rounded and appealing to young people.

Why do you choose to speak to audiences about your experience?

I desire to see young people go through their high school career, not just physically unscathed by violence, but also able to think for themselves, act for themselves, know who they are and what they believe in, and have a strong sense of right and wrong. I want students to understand how their actions day in and day out are simply the building blocks for who they will become in the future. Therefore I want them to be aware of how each action affects not only them, but everyone around them, and how character is what counts. I believe in young people, and they need to hear that message. They need to know that people believe in them, and that they have value and worth, beyond just being a good student, athlete, artist, or musician. I believe that all young people are in search of acceptance and are crying out to be noticed. If it takes traveling all over the globe to share how we care for them and believe in their ability to live positively, then perhaps it will prevent people from feeling alone, isolated, angry and bent on destruction in order to be heard.

I also have a passion to speak to young people because I know there are students listening who have been broken down and beaten up by the world around them. I know there are a lot of students who were just like the two killers at Columbine who are picked on and made fun of daily, who are angry and alone. I know there are students who have difficult family situations and feel hopeless. Many are seeking a solution to their pain and problems, and I want them to know they have a purpose and that there are other ways to solve their problems apart from acting violently. I want students to understand, that they need to be who they are and make no apologies for being different, but live confidently in who they were destined to become. It really makes me sad that the two boys at Columbine did what they did, but I can also see how a person can come to the edge and feel like there is no other option. I have been in touch with some shooters of other school massacres to try to understand them, and what I have found is that these young kids are human too. In most cases, they regret what they have done and want to stop others from making the same mistakes.

I share to inspire and to bring a solid message of hope and a future. I believe I was entrusted with a story and have the responsibility to steward it in a way that changes people, even if it only impacts one person, I have done my job.

What messages do you try to convey?

Simply put- HOPE! I always want to convey a message of hope to people regardless of their circumstances, whether people experience a form of violence, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the betrayal of a friend, an unfair boss, an unfaithful spouse, an illness, or abuse. I want people to know that hope is a choice, and it takes a conscious effort to choose it over the looming hopelessness and overwhelming odds. Likely many will never experience school violence, but will in some form or another experience tragedy that will shake them to the core, and it’s not their tragedy that defines them, but their response. I don’t ever want to see anyone crushed under the weight of their circumstances by becoming a victim- I want people to rise above and survive and choose triumph!

After you speak, what do you hope audiences walk away thinking?

I don’t care whether or not anyone remembers me, I’m not in this for personal fame or wealth- I hope that when people stare into the face of suffering that they will eventually recognize there is always a silver lining. I know it may sound idealistic, but I believe it and must choose to continually believe that, because we live in a world where a lot of painful things happen. Columbine wasn’t the last difficult thing that happened in my life and I won’t let destruction, pain, hatred and anger win the day.

How have audiences reacted to your messages?

I have received an array of different reactions from my message, a few who responded with negativity and criticism and the majority who respond in amazement and determination to take action in their own spheres of influence. Whenever I am done speaking I am flooded by students who share their heart wrenching stories about being bullied and picked on, about their situations at home and their experiences growing up. I have had some students confess that they have dreamed and even planned on doing something similar at their school, but after hearing my story wouldn’t dream of causing such pain to others. I have had many students experience a wake up call and an opportunity turn their lives around before it was too late. Some have opened up to share that they were suicidal, they were cutters, and they were depressed. While others have sought to make better choices. Some of my favorite stories are about young kids who take ownership and responsibility for their actions and strive to make their schools a better place for all.

Describe a meaningful or memorable moment that stands out to you that
was a result of speaking?

I would say that there are three really memorable stories that come to mind when I think about my travels over the last few years.

The first, is about a junior high girl in Alabama who emailed me after I spoke at her school and told me that she was deeply impacted by what I shared and vowed to change her life. She said she was a popular cheerleader at her school and had her own clique of friends and never thought it was important to reach out to people who were different then her. In fact, she told me that she had a bad habit of making fun of people and gossiping about them. Everyone wanted to gain this girls approval, so they would follow her example. After hearing me speak, she said she realized that she could use her popularity to make a positive difference at her school. In fact, she started doing small things that made a huge difference. Sitting with students who ate alone in the cafeteria, holding the door open for others, saying kind things to people, choosing to not gossip, and making friends with outcasts. Once again her friends started to follow her example and soon enough, she said it was actually making her school a better place.

The second memorable experience is when I was asked to travel to Beslan Russia and speak to the community and survivors of those who endured a three-day terrorist attack at their school in 2004. I was heartbroken when I heard of the tragedy and desperately wanted to go to comfort the people there. I never, ever believe I need to go somewhere because I have something people need to hear, in fact, school violence leaves me speechless. However, I do feel the need wrap my arms around suffering people, be an ear to listen and be a shoulder to cry on. I was given that opportunity a few months after the attack, and met many young children. I went to a cemetery with one of the survivors to visit the grave of her younger brother who died during the siege. I remember just sitting there as she wept and wondered if she would ever experience happiness and joy again. She brought me gifts to thank me for coming, which absolutely floored me. She made a much more profound impact on my life then I believe I could have ever made on hers.

The last experience was when I traveled to Virginia after the deadliest shooting this nation has ever seen at Virginia Tech. I was sitting outside of Norris Hall where 30 people died when a student came and sat near me. I started talking with her and she told me she had lost friends and was still in shock that something like this could happen on their quiet VT campus. She asked why a Columbine survivor would come all that way for them and was so thankful I there. The two of us shared a few moments crying together as I prayed for her and everyone on campus.

About your book.

Title: Marked for Life: Choosing Hope and Discovering Purpose After Earth-Shattering Tragedy

I really love the title Marked for Life- because, I believe it truly captures the journey I have been on for ten years. I once believed that I would forever be marked by disappointment, failure, pain, tragedy and the belief of being average. However, after walking through an incremental process of healing, I realized that my life would instead be marked by hope, joy, love, peace, forgiveness and purpose- for as long as I am given breath to live.

Co-authors: Ashley Wiersma

When was it published? 2006

How long did it take to write?
One year

How many have sold so far and where can it be purchased?

I have no idea how many books have been sold, I get updates from my publisher, but never have been able to make sense of all the numbers, and I really don’t care. My concern is that people are impacted by it, not how well it does. It can be found at Barnes and Noble, Borders,, Mardel and my website.

Do the profits go to any charities?

The profits from my book do not go to any charities, but all the money (which isn’t a ton) go back into my ministry which supports several charities. For example, about a year ago, I designed two different t-shirts that could be sold to benefit hungry children through and organization called, Food for the Hungry.

Describe the main messages and plot of the book.

Marked for Life, is a biography, illustrating my life prior to the events at Columbine, the actual day of April 20, 1999 and the events that followed. I describe some of the things that were helpful in my personal healing process, as well as, sharing the stories of several people I have met along the way in my travels, who have given me courage to stay the course when things got difficult. It also challenges people to go out and make their mark on their world.

The book begins when I was in Beslan Russia, and follows me around the world, ending in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, a short time after the Tsunami. I wrote the book as a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ, because for me, that is the lens through which I see the world.

Why did you decide to write it?

It was a dream come true for me to write this book. In fact, many times I had tried, but ran into so many closed doors and opposition along the way, that I had given up on that dream. However, after several years, a literary agent approached me and worked hard on my behalf to enable me to share the story with the world.

I had been speaking for several years at this point, and wanted to tell the others parts of my story that I was never able to share with a crowd of people in a thirty to forty-five minute presentation. My goal was that people would find encouragement in their own circumstances and that they would flip to the last page of my book, with new resolve and determination to impact their world in a positive way.

What sorts of reactions have you received from readers?

I have received very positive feedback from people who have read my book. Countless times, I have received emails and messages from people who found great comfort in my book and thanked me for my vulnerability and honesty by putting my life down on paper. I have seen people get behind my book and support me by buying cases for their co-workers friends and even volunteers within their organizations.

I have spent an extensive amount of time in Germany and a publisher in Germany got a hold of my book and worked hard to translate it and make it available in their country. The German title of my book is, Ich Dachte, Mein Leben ist Vorbei: Wie der Amoklauf von Littleton eine junge Frau veranderte. The Germans have been incredibly generous and loyal people as they have embraced both this story and me. It has been especially interesting how I have been receiving several emails in the last few days from people affected by the recent shooting (March 11, 2009) at a local high school. Some have read the book and others know me from spending time there, either way, people are seeking comfort during this difficult time, and I am thankful they can call on me to walk beside them.

I believe that even if one person is touched by my story, then I accomplished my goal in writing this book.

What do you want readers to take from it?

I want readers to be encouraged, filled with hope and challenged to reach out to the downtrodden, ostracized, hurting and broken wherever they may be. I want people to rise above their circumstances and become better and stronger people, who don’t curse their suffering, but view it as beauty marks they carry with them into a promising future.

Have you seen any changes as a result of your book or does a personal
response from a reader stand out at all?

Often times, people share their stories of struggle and survival, after reading my book. One woman in particular, shared a story about her son who was murdered by a person who was never caught. Over the years she has walked through an array of emotions and have sought answers to her questions. She said that Marked for Life, captured suffering in a way no other book she has read was able to do. She said that this book touched her deeply and was recommending it to everyone she knew.

Has Columbine influenced your careers goals at all?

Columbine influenced my career goals on every level, even though I never intended for it to be that way. When I was in high school I was convinced that I was going to be an elementary school teacher. By the time I graduated high school I had already hundreds of hours in schools working as a teacher’s aide. I loved the idea of pouring into young people and inspiring them to learn. I went to college and began pursuing my teaching degree. I got through two years and virtually completed the entire course, just shy of student teaching, when my course of direction changed drastically. By my sophomore year of college, I had already been speaking and traveling overseas a considerable amount, and had decided I wanted to pursue relief work and speaking. Ultimately I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership, which further enabled me to continue what I had come to know and love. I never, ever envisioned becoming a full-time motivational speaker, an author, or a screenplay writer at a film company.

One minor regret is how I was forced to grow up incredibly quick. While most of my classmates and friends were off enjoying their college years, I was living like an adult with my career underway. I lost touch with friends from high school and attended a college where hardly any of my friends went, so that was a little bit sad.

Did you have any reservations about writing about Columbine?

Yes and no. It seemed so natural to write about something that affected me so deeply, but at the same time, I wanted to be very careful about honoring the victims, the survivors and my old schoolmates. I didn’t want to offend anyone by my thoughts and perspective, but also rested in the fact, that each and every person deals with such a tragedy in their own way, and for me, writing this book was a way to deal with the events of my personal life, in which Columbine played a big part.

How did Columbine affect you spiritually?

Spiritually everything changed during and after the events at Columbine. Prior to the massacre, I would have called myself a Christian, a person of faith, but so often, my life did not reflect that. I made a lot of poor choices, ones I’m not necessarily proud of. I had this deep emptiness that I was trying to fill, but no matter how hard I tried, I felt empty, and more alone. Yet, under the table in the library, as I literally stared death in the face, I realized that there was so much more to life then what I once valued. Everything I had tried had failed me and I was still searching. I knew that whether I had ten seconds or ten years left to live, that my life had to be about something more. I knew something existed that could fill that emptiness, and from my background in the evangelical church and people within my extended family, I knew that true life was found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, I cried out and vowed that I would quit doing all the things I was doing and completely give my life to God. Although to some, faith seems intangible and pointless, but for me, I found my comfort, and hope in the Lord who was more real and present in that moment, and since, then anything that was physically going on around me. After escaping the library, my faith in the Lord was the One thing that sustained me through the days, weeks and months to follow. I was angry with God and couldn’t understand why He had allowed something so terrible to happen to my friends and I. It didn’t seem right, but I was comforted by the fact, that the Lord’s heart broke even more than my own over the situation. I know that I live in a broken world with broken people, who have the freedom of will to commit such acts, but I also knew from experience that this life is short in comparison to eternity. After the events at Columbine, I found comfort in the Bible and discovered so many truths that gave me a hope and a foundation to rebuild my life upon. My relationship with the Lord has never been and never will be about a religion based on rules and laws, but everything to do with a unconditional and lavishly loving God who can relate with my suffering and give me strength to walk through my days. Over the years my understanding and perspective about spiritual matters has evolved as I have grown and witnessed the world around me, but my faith in Jesus still remains the single most important thing in my life.

Had Columbine not happened, how would you be different, personally and

Many times I have asked myself this very question, “how would my life have been different had I not been at Columbine,” and each time I realize it’s next to impossible to answer, because I can never turn back time or change what happened to me. Although I wished life could be restored to the way it was before Columbine, I am thankful of the person I have become. I have grown in compassion toward people in all circumstances, although I still tend to be an incredibly selfish person at times, I really seek to live in a way that reaches out to those in need. I think I have become a stronger person with a deeper sense of character and purpose. I am confident in who I am and what I believe. I have a family who loves me, a husband who couldn’t be more loving and supportive and close friends who love me for who I am, not because I’m a Columbine speaker, and an author.

Looking around at the world today, what changes (positive OR negative)
do you see as a result of Columbine?

Well, unfortunately Columbine has become synonymous with school violence, and in many ways it began what can be described as an epidemic. More and more students see violence as a way to solve their problems without seeking the help they need. On the flip side, however, Columbine has been the start of a lot of positive things as well. Programs such as the 180 Tour have begun to inform and inspire young people. We have seen schools change the way they train teachers and prepare students. We know that since Columbine threats and warning signs are no longer ignored and emergency personnel have also better equipped themselves to handle such events. Many schools have begun once again to emphasize the importance of character education and community involvement. Groups within government have formed to do their part in ending violence on national and local levels. People recognize the problem goes deeper than an issue of metal detectors and school uniforms, yet unfortunately it has caused other rather extreme people to seek out methods, such as arming teachers.

All in all, we would do anything to have the thirteen who were killed on April 20, 1999 back in our lives, therefore, many work tirelessly in effort to see that we never again loose anymore innocent lives in our schools.

Contact info for people who are interested in purchasing your book or
booking you:

Crystal Miller

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sarah Gillings - Class of 2002 - Artist

Describe your experience during the tragedy.

I was in the commons in a lunch line nearest to the student parking lot. I was with my best friend Chris. When everything started I remember looking at the clock and seeing I didn’t have much longer till English class. I was thinking, “I should be in the library working on my Government project”. I had my headphones on, a song that started, “This is my church. This is where I heal my hurts.” With the first explosion (outside) I was confused. Coach Sanders ran by me yelling as every one crawled under the tables. I thought it was a prank or a drill – more a prank by a senior. I just stood there watching. I snapped out of it when Chris pulled me down and put his arms around me protecting me. When we got outside I watched as if it weren’t me standing there with all of my friends… Well almost all of them. Some were still inside. “Where’s my Daddy? I want my Daddy…”

How has the healing process been for you over the past ten years?

Well healing from anything is hard. I had survivor’s guilt and with out a physical wound I didn’t feel like I should be feeling so out of place. I went on a trip that summer to my Grandma’s farm in Michigan and all along the way I was wearing my Columbine tee and sweats. I felt like I was being stared at and gawked at.

After three more of my friends were killed (car accident and murdered) I snapped. I felt like if I stayed, I would die. We moved. When I got into a new school (one quart the size of CHS) I lied I said I went to Chatfield and Columbine became a bad word. I didn’t use it and if I did I said “CHS” and anyone who really knew me knew what I meant. There were people who found out and taunted me. If someone wanted to hurt me worse than just words they said, “You should have been shot.” or “I wish you would have died.” Others have asked me to talk to their children and even groups of people.

Eventually I turned to my photography and design to deal with my pain and express it. Before I worked on projects just to move my thoughts away from what I was thinking. I kept journals then brought it out visually. I cried – a lot. I felt as if I kept dyeing and becoming more of a freak. I got to the point where I couldn’t talk about it any more, as if I was intruding on my family and friends.

After I was awarded for my work it brought on a whole new feeling. I didn’t feel like a freak but became ok with my own skin and thoughts. I felt I could finally live my life.

Update me on your professional life - what have you been doing over the past ten years?

When the shooting happened I was in my freshman year. So for nine of these years I have been in school and University. This past year I graduated from University and gave birth to my beautiful daughter Lillian. Since I graduated in May of 2008 I have been a stay at home mom and freelance photographer and graphic designer.

Describe your professional goals.

Currently I am looking for a job in the Design field.

About your artwork:

How many pieces have you done that were inspired by the tragedy?

Two directly Alternative Demise and Untitled. Many, many more have been influenced and would not have happened other wise.

Can you describe your favorite ones?

The first, Alternative Demise, is a photographic montage depicting a path filled with temptation, fear and death. Trees became drug needles and shadows lurked behind head stones. Untitled is a drawing of over powering the serpents intruding on my thoughts and dreams.

What exactly is it about Columbine that you tried to communicate in your art about the tragedy?

I was trying to describe Columbine or how I felt about it. I was trying to visually describe my internal emotions as a result of such horrible things.

Why did you decide to do art that related to Columbine?

I need to get out everything I was feeling before I hurt someone or myself. I needed to not be so mad.

Did you have any reservations about it?

No. It wasn’t like putting a red stamp on it saying this is because of Columbine. It was more of if you knew, you knew.

How did your art help your healing process?

It helped give me an outlet and made me really search for who I was to become. It gave viewers a chance to see it and understand my pain, my triumph, and that I was not just a statistic.

What has been some of the reaction to your work by others? Is there a memorable moment that stands out of someone's reaction?

I have my work posted on line and some of my mom’s coworkers saw it on MySpace. One pulled my mom aside, kind of bewildered… their conversation was as follows:

Jamie: Have you seen Sarah’s MySpace page.
Mom: Yes she showed me last night.
Jamie: Her work is really scary aren’t you worried? (meaning Alternative Demise)
Mom: No. In fact I love her work it tells me she is dealing instead of bottling. She doesn’t talk about it. If she weren’t doing this work then I would be worried. (Yea go mom!)

My grandmother was embarrassed. After I took first and third in the same photo competition, I was on the front page of our town’s paper. People stopped my grandmother and asked her how she felt. She was worried and asked me to stop.

Other people in the community sent my congratulations cards and copies of the article.

Have other survivors seen your work? What are their reactions to it?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Where has your work ended up? (Did you sell it etc.)

I have not sold it. But it has been in shows and published in the paper and on line.

How long did each piece take you to do?

Some can take as little as 10 hours others can take up to 50. On average my work can take up to 25 hours.

When did you do them?

I mostly worked on them during college. After seeing the memorial in December I haven’t felt the need to make more. I feel so much of a release and not as much fear of where I am from.

Have you been involved in any other Columbine-related projects?

No. I feel kind of forgotten.

Has Columbine influenced your career goals? If so, how?

Well, Mrs. H was my first photography teacher. She helped me find my love of the art. She is apart of Columbine so yes.

How did Columbine affect your spirituality? (Were you religious before or no? Did you become religious after?)

I was not religious. But it feels now like something is missing and I don’t know if that is the church. I believe in God and Jesus but I just don’t feel like I belong in a church. Or maybe I just haven’t found the right church. Jesus and Columbine have felt like they are one in the same when being talked about. Either someone loves or they hate you.

Had Columbine happened, how would you be different personally and professionally?

I can’t answer that. I don’t think I would have grown up and gone to college or found what I was looking for. I wouldn’t have my love or my little girl.

Looking around at the world today, what changes (positive OR negative) do you see as a result of Columbine?

When there is another shooting anywhere in the world it is always compared. It is always there. I think it has made people more aware but on the other hand it has been sensationalized.