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Sandy Hook teacher says hope helped her overcome shootings

| Thursday, September 24, 2015

Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a teacher present during the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, spoke Wednesday night in the Hesburgh Library about how hope helped her overcome her experience, found a non-profit and publish a book in the wake of the shooting.

Despite the grim events that acted as a catalyst to Roig-DeBellis’ talk, her words were optimistic and encouraging.

“Your perspective determines how you react or not to every situation in your life,” Roig-DeBellis said, “You have the choice. You alone have the power … it will make the impossible feel possible.”

Roig-DeBellis described the events and choices that molded her life, from her adoption as an infant to her first teaching job at Sandy Hook — all of which involved “the balance found in life. There are highs and lows, there is good and bad found on any one day, in any one moment.

“Both are always present,”Roig-DeBellis said. “It is a choice which to focus on.”

Roig-DeBellis said during the shootings, her choice became one between life and death for herself and her 15 first-grade students. She said she ushered her students into a tiny bathroom, and together they hid in silence as gunshots rang out.

“For myself the only decision that needed to be made was, ‘Do I want my students and I to survive?’” Roig-DeBellis said, “The only answer to that was yes. … What I was asking them to do must have sounded impossible. Our classroom bathroom was a three-by-four foot space.

“ … We stood there huddled, squished like sardines, listening to the sheer horror of what was happening on the other side of the cinder block. Pure evil reigned. My students looked up with me with pleading eyes and said, ‘Miss Roig, I want to have Christmas this year,’ ‘Miss Roig, I want to have my mom,’ ‘Miss Roig, I don’t want to die today.’ I said, ‘I know, it’s going to be all right.’

“I did not think it was going to be all right … and so in that moment that I was sure was going to be our last, I told my students how lucky I was that they were in my class, how happy I was to be their teacher and that I loved them all very, very much. I wanted something positive to be the last thing they heard.”

Following the shootings, Roig-DeBellis said she struggled with a loss of independence as a result of trauma.

“I couldn’t go anywhere in public. … I couldn’t be in the dark. … It was infuriating,” she said.

However, Roig-DeBellis said in choosing hope, she was able to begin the healing process through starting a non-profit and penning a book.

“Instead of focusing on questions that I was never going to answer, I had to focus on the ones that I could,” she said, “And in focusing on those questions … it gave me renewed hope because it gave me a purpose.”

As gifts poured in for the Sandy Hook survivors from across the world, Roig-DeBellis said her class responded by sending gifts to an elementary school in Tennessee, who in turn sent white boards to a class in Arizona, and a chain of giving began.

From this pattern Roig-DeBellis said she founded Classes4Classes, a non-profit which aims to “actively engage students in learning a social curriculum through the exchange of gifts with other K-8 classrooms, which fulfill a need or vocational objective,” according to its website.

Roig-DeBellis said she also decided to write a book about her experiences during the shootings and how her choice to hope helped her overcome her pain. Her book, “Choosing Hope: Moving Forward from Your Life’s Darkest Hour,” will be available in stores in upcoming weeks.

“I am an ordinary person. I am a teacher, I am a wife, I am a runner, I am a survivor,” Roig-DeBellis said. “I am just like you. … I am somebody who made a choice that what could have been unbearable wasn’t going to be. We each have that choice.”

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About Andrea Vale

Andrea Vale is a freshman at Notre Dame who has previously written for both the Sun Chronicle and the Huffington Post. She plans to major in English with a Creative Writing concentration and a minor in Journalism.

Contact Andrea