’26 people in my community died’: Why this group is speaking out

Junior arts administration major Emily Crebbin shows her “Be Kind” necklace outside Whitehall on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Lexington, Kentucky. Crebbin wears the necklace in remembrance of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in her hometown of Newtown, Connecticut. 

Rick Childress

Emily Crebbin was a sophomore at Newtown High School when Adam Lanza devastated her hometown in 2012 by killing 20 elementary school students, six adults and himself in what is still one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.

“It’s hard because the reason that I have these conversations is because 26 people in my community died,” said Crebbin, a junior at UK. “I was 16 when it happened, and I never really thought about gun control and I don’t think a lot of people did.”

Crebbin, an arts administration major, is a member of the small student group Sandy Hook Promise. SHP is a larger national organization that was started by Sandy Hook parents. The organization’s main goal is educating people on how to prevent gun-related deaths.

At UK, SHP is “pretty small,” said Nicole Funk, a junior and the group’s founder. The group is just starting back up this semester after a few months of inactivity. Crebbin said she wanted to join the UK SHP after the Las Vegas mass shooting in October.

After all, she’d always been involved since “it started in my town.”

“It was so shocking that 20 kids got on the bus that one morning and never came home,” Crebbin said. “It was insane, and we didn’t really know what was happening, we didn’t know what to do.”

Her high school class was on a field trip when the shooting at Sandy Hook happened, which she said was “good and bad because I was watching the news while it was happening whereas most people were in lockdown.” Crebbin’s class returned to their high school and sat in the gym.

Crebbin’s father is a minister at a church in Newtown. He was a first responder who was stationed at the Sandy Hook Firehouse where he would comfort parents after they were told their children were not found.

“I came home from school and my mom was like, ‘Dad’s not here, he’s there, and he’s talking to them,’” Crebbin said.

She stressed that she wasn’t personally connected with any of the kids, but her father, through vigils and other events, became very close with the grieving families.

Now several states away and five years later, Crebbin said it’s strange and tragic that many of the people she meets know about her tiny hometown in Connecticut.

“It’s crazy that people know it and it’s sad that people know it for that,” Crebbin said. “Because it’s so much more. It’s such a beautiful community.”

Crebbin said that, after the shooting, the devastated Newtown community became a lot closer. Newtown is just a little town, she said– “there’s nothing to do there, it’s not like a fun place to go.”

“It’s so interesting because everyone from Newtown wants to go back, just because of that community that we built and we all have these necklaces that I’m wearing,” she said while pointing out a small blue clay pendant that hung around her neck that had “Be Kind,” written across it.

A disaster relief organization called the Ben’s Bells Project came to Newtown and allowed community members to make them— “literally everyone I know has one,” Crebbin said.

“It really connected us and we all really started to live by the message of, ‘Be Kind,’” she said. “Because you know the Sandy Hook principal, one of the things that she would say was, ‘Be nice to each other, that’s all that really matters.’”

According to Funk, that’s what SHP is essentially trying to accomplish. When Funk first started the group as a freshman in 2015, she said she didn’t want to make it “too politically charged.” While gun control is very important to her, she said UK SHP hasn’t petitioned for many gun control laws.

Rather, they’ve tried to host events that educate and bring the community closer together. Tuesday afternoon, the group set up outside Whitehall with post-it notes. On the notes, passing students could write messages to victims of the February shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The notes will be arranged on a banner to spell out, “UK stands with you.” Crebbin said the banner will be sent to the victims as a symbol of solidarity and “that they’re not alone and that we’re thinking about them and will continue to think about them.”

“I was trying to think of things in Newtown that we got after Sandy Hook that were helpful, were encouraging and made us feel not alone,” Crebbin said.

Aside from their events, SHP wants to kickstart the conversation at UK and join into the broader national conversation.

“Honestly, if people want to come talk to me about why their guns are important, I’ll have that conversation with them if they want to come to our meeting,” Crebbin said.

She said she wants others to listen, but she can’t do that if she doesn’t listen to others.

Funk agreed and said that listening “could lead to a better solution.”

“Not even just mass shootings are a reason for these conversations,” Funk said. “There’s gun violence that goes on in Lexington basically everywhere on such a smaller scale, but it’s so prevalent.”

Even if school shootings and prominent gun violence stopped, Crebbin said she’d still want the conversation to continue. The conversation should shift to remembering the victims, so that when other issues come up, “we can stop them when they start instead of letting stuff like this continue.”

Funk said SHP’s mission is about being “accountable for the people around you.” Seeking to help an isolated or troubled person could go a long way, she said.

“That’s something anyone can do,” Funk said. “College students can do that, just as easily as anyone else can. No matter where you are life. To just pay attention to people and if you feel like something’s up, to trust your intuition and say something.”

Just as her community is known for tragedy, Crebbin laments the fact that she started talking about these issues because of tragedy, but she still wants to continue the conversation.

“An elementary school—when that happens it’s so insane,” Crebbin said. “You can’t even grasp it really. It’s hard because I think about that and I think about the fact that I started to have these conversations because people died, and I continue to because people continue to die, and nothing is changing.”