PARKLAND, Fla. — At a makeshift memorial site filled with flowers and painted rocks outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Friday afternoon, three young Parkland residents who were in elementary school two years ago sat side by side on a bench and remembered Jaime Guttenberg.
The girls knew Guttenberg through dance, sharing a coach in the community, and they looked up to her. Emily Nagle, 13, said she would always make sure to take a picture with Guttenberg whenever she saw her at competitions.
“I wanted to be like her as a dancer,” Nagle said.
A couple miles up the road at Pine Trails Park, a large photograph of Guttenberg soaring through the air while dancing was on display, one of 17 panels lined up in two rows to honor the 14 students and three adults who were killed in the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2018.
Next to each panel was a collage of heart-shaped messages from friends and family. “Thank you for being more than a best friend. Thank you for being a sister,” one of the messages said on the panel for Guttenberg. “I hope you’re dancing and eating cheese in heaven.”
The emotions were still raw on the two-year anniversary of the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. Tony Montalto, the father of 14-year-old Gina Montalto, who was killed in the shooting, said it didn’t feel much different than any other day.
“Some of it is just the same every day,” he said. “My family lost my daughter Gina. We miss her bright and bubbly personality. We miss having our family be whole and not broken.”
Julie McNichol, the mother of two current Marjory Stoneman Douglas students in 11th and 12th grades, said the community’s grief is still palpable. She brought a box of rocks and flowers to place at the memorial outside the school Friday.
“It’s been difficult for the children coming back here every day, looking at the building,” McNichol said. She said she and her daughter planned to visit a cemetery Friday where some of the victims are buried.
Montalto and so many family members and friends of the victims have continued to channel their grief into action — nationally, by pushing for gun control and school safety measures, as well as locally. It was Montalto who asked Hands on Broward, the group behind the panels, to also create books for the community to fill Friday with written memories of each victim.
“I think that will be a powerful gift to our families,” Montalto said. “You hope that you can get some smiles through the tears.”
Inside the Parkland Recreation and Enrichment Center next to the park, residents tried to do just that. Young residents petted therapy dogs. Others packed into a gym, wearing hairnets and gloves as they stood around tables and packed rice and other nutrients in a service project organized by Food for the Poor.
The group’s CEO, Ed Raine, said he expected that more than 100,000 meals would be packed Friday and sent to communities in Haiti.
“Healing takes many forms,” he said. “The grief and the scars are deep, and that’s gonna be forever. … This allows them to honor the memory of the children that were slain, but at the same time, do something productive.”
Upbeat music filled the gym. “If you think you’re the fastest station here, make some noise,” a Food for the Poor representative said over a microphone. Cheers filled the room. “You guys are doing awesome,” he said.
At 2:21 p.m. Eastern time, the moment the shooting began two years ago, a hush fell over the gym during a one-minute moment of silence.
Later, as the sun began to set, hundreds of residents gathered in the park for an interfaith ceremony to remember the victims. Some of their family members sat in front of the park’s amphitheater stage, separated from the rest of the residents and the media by barriers and several armed guards.
“Some families have left town. Some have stayed,” Montalto said. “Everyone is handling this in their own way.”
As a pastor read each of the victims’ names aloud, residents young and old, seated and standing behind the families on the grass, began to cry.
“After two long years, it still hurts so much,” Rabbi Bradd Boxman said during the ceremony. “It’s our reality that we have to hold.”
Parkland’s mayor, Christine Hunschofsky, told the Miami Herald after the ceremony that, although the attention from media and the public is less intense than it was a year ago, the feelings aren’t.
“The outside attention may be less, but the attention inside hasn’t changed,” she said. “Today just brought everybody back.”
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