“I absolutely reject the ‘hero’ label,” says Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, the Sandy Hook first grade teacher who, through a combination of good fortune and quick thinking, hid with her young students in a small bathroom where together they survived the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
In the aftermath of horrific events, people tend to look for hero stories; they are the bright spots that give us hope that we live in a world of happy endings, with people who, through their goodness and bravery, do the right thing. But Kaitlin knows the fine line of survival that day was due to something well beyond anyone’s control.
“I was lucky,” she says. “And I know that the outcome could have been very different.”
In the weeks immediately following the shooting, Kaitlin just survived. She was terrified and didn’t want to leave her house. Her fiancee, whom she married in August, was her lifeline. “For about two weeks, I didn’t even know I was alive,” Kaitlin says. “I felt as though I were in Heaven, looking down on myself.” Her faith, and the passage of time, got her through those first terrible weeks.
Once she felt she was on solid ground, she took action. Within a matter of weeks, she conceived of the idea for Classes4Classes, a non-profit that serves as a platform for students and teachers to create and engage in projects intended to help another class, across the hall or across the country. “I wanted my students to have something positive, something good, that they could do that would held them regain some of the control they lost that day,” Kaitlin says.
Whether it’s fundraising for a particular resource or teaching tool, or as is the case with one current project, an effort to fund three field trips for an inter city class that has never had one, Classes4Classes provides a framework for teaching children to give, to “pay it forward.” The heart and soul of Classes4Classes takes it a step further. As Kaitlin says, “If we choose love, kindness, empathy, compassion and hope, which I so believe we should, then we need to make a point to teach these things.”
What’s more, any class, regardless of their personal resources, can give. Projects are crowd-funded, and resources can come from anyone, anywhere, and in any amount. Some class do fundraise for their gift projects, but that is entirely up to their own discretion.
Taking a leave of absence from the Newtown School Department afforded Kaitlin the time to focus on healing and getting Classes4Classes off the ground. Part of that process was writing her feelings down; getting them out where she could face them and deal with them. The unintended benefit of that exercise was that when faced with a request to deliver a speech last August, she was prepared. Since then, she has been in demand, delivering motivational speeches on the power of compassion, kindness, empathy and consideration across the United States and Canada.
Kaitlin always wanted to be a teacher, and ever since she was young she has worked with children. She is looking forward to returning to the classroom this August and reengaging in her life’s work, on top of her recently-acquired roles of non-profit director and public speaker. It’s a full dance card, but one that gives her hope and purpose as she moves forward.
Moving forward — it’s an important distinction. “People often ask me if I have moved on,” Kaitlin says. “I will never move on. That day will be part of who I am for the rest of my life. But I will move forward because I must.”
“My situation isn’t unique. People experience devastating tragedies every day,” she says. “If I can help another person by sharing a message of hope, letting them know that there is a way forward, I want to do that.”
Eighteen months ago, Kaitlin never would imagine that she would spend her days helping children learn empathy and compassion through giving; and and helping people see a beacon of hope in the darkness of tragedy — even while nursing her own emotional scars. Despite the fact that Kaitlin rejects the hero label for her quick thinking that horrible December day, it is clear that she has been spending every day since then earning it.
Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis will be speaking at the First Congregational Church in Bristol this Friday at 5 p.m.; and serving as the Honorary Chairperson for the Bristol Warren Education Foundation’s “Bodacious Bee” on Saturday night, at Roger Williams University. For more information on either event, please visit www.bwedfoundation.org. For more information on how you can get involved with Classes4Classes, please visit www.Classes4Classes.org.
WHERE: First Congregational Church, High St., Bristol
WHEN: 5 p.m.; Friday, March 7
COST: Free, space is limited, must RSVP
MORE INFO: www.bwedfoundation.org